PONCE DE LEON – 12 children of “Gold Star” service members recently made their way to Vortex Spring to take part in the inaugural National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) and Force Blue Ocean Conservation School. Force Blue, a non-profit that unites the community of Special Operations veterans with the world of marine conservation, partnered with NAUI Worldwide to nurture future conservation leaders who are instilled with a profound sense of duty and service.
Gold Star families are those whose immediate family member died while serving in the U.S. military during a time of conflict. Ranging from age 10 to 23, the children of such fallen service men and women spent the week of March 10 through 14 earning their diving certification and learning about why preserving and restoring the world’s oceans and marine habitats is so important.
Krista Simpson Anderson lost her husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson, in Afghanistan in 2013 while their two boys were still young. Now 10 and 12, respectively, Gabriel and Michael Simpson were a part of the school. Anderson says it was an honor for her children to be chosen.
“There is nothing better than a community coming together and choosing you,” said Anderson. “The cadre with Force Blue is amazing. I know that my boys will never be alone; they will have these men in their lives from now on.” Michael echoed his mother’s sentiment. “It feels really good for people to take the time to invite us,” he said. “The cadre has been so much help, and we have really enjoyed learning how to dive. My favorite part, though, was listening to (marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols) talk about his book.” Titled “Blue Mind,” that book illustrates the “crucial importance” of the connection of water to the human race.
Nichols was on hand during the event, where he conducted a conservation study with the group to help teach them about the importance of ocean conservation.
Organizers say that while learning about the importance of conservation is a key component of their mission, the most vital goal is to change the narrative for those who have lost a loved one in the line of military service from that of anger, loss, and despair to one of hope, empowerment, and purpose.
Sisters Katie and Jenna Palmer say losing their dad in 2011 left a hole in their lives but the program gave them an opportunity that “means the world.”
“We have come to learn that water is healing,” said Katie. “Learning to dive is a big part of our healing process. We are so blessed to be a part of this event with Force Blue, and we look forward to working more with their cadre.”
15-year-old Austyn Gavulic says being around others who have endured a similar loss made the experience even better. “It is cool to be around people who understand life,” said Gavulic. “It isn’t often people get what we have lived through. To be around other people who know and understand is something I am thankful for.”
Roger Sparks, a Force Blue team member, says that by teaching the students about conversation and the basics of diving, the program is giving them a duty to do what is right.
“With ability comes responsibility,” said Sparks. “By teaching these kids, we are giving them the ability, which leaves them with the responsibility to do something with what they have learned.”
Sparks also says he hopes the program will give participants a tangible way to honor the legacy of the servicemember they have lost.
The Original Vortex Spring Owner Angela Dockery says she is not only proud to have hosted these families in Holmes County, but to be a part of a much bigger purpose is a blessing.
“We feel so honored to have been chosen for such a special inaugural event,” said Dockery. “Gold Star families are the family that no one wants to be. These families have paid the ultimate sacrifice for each of us, and I personally feel blessed beyond measure to be able to give back to each of them and be a proud supporter of Force Blue and their OCS outreach.”
For more information on Force Blue visit forceblueteam.org.