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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Veterans Dive To Raise Awareness About Overfishing

Sgt. Sergeant Stephen Jackel dives for the first time with two prosthetic legs off the coast of West Palm Beach. (Operation:Blue Pride)

Sgt. Sergeant Stephen Jackel dives for the first time with two prosthetic legs off the coast of West Palm Beach. (Operation:Blue Pride)

This summer, veterans from across the country are headed to the shores of West Palm Beach, Fla., for one reason: to build a new army of undersea soldiers who bring awareness about overfishing.

The program is called “Operation: Blue Pride” and these new recruits come from a band of unlikely soldiers.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Patricia Sagastume of WLRN explains why these vets are fighting the good fight in shark-infested waters.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. It's HERE AND NOW.

This summer, veterans from across the country headed to the shores of West Palm Beach, Florida for one reason: to build a new army. But these new recruits come from a band of unlikely soldiers. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WLRN's Patricia Sagastume explains why this vets are fighting the good fight in shark-infested waters.

SERGEANT CHRIS MADDEFORD: So, look who it is: the jackal.

PATRICIA SAGASTUME, BYLINE: The jackal is Stephen Wayne Jackel, Jr. He lives in Texas. He's married with six young children. And he's a double amputee.

SERGEANT STEPHEN WAYNE JACKEL JR.: You know, me being 34, retiring from the military on the 27th of this month, I'm looking at the rest of my life, what am I going to do, it's a very hard hitter.

SAGASTUME: On this day, Jackel is scuba diving 75-feet deep off the coast of Florida for the first time with no legs.

JR.: I mean, almost half my body is gone.

SAGASTUME: Last year, he and other seriously injured vets started training as part of Operation Blue Pride. Now they've returned to West Palm Beach to help new recruits learn to scuba dive.

JR.: It's difficult, very difficult having all that go on in front of the veterans that we had. That was another hit, being prideful, you know?

MADDEFORD: Man, I'm so glad to see you.

JR.: Yeah, I'm glad to see you.

MADDEFORD: Take care.

SAGASTUME: The goal is to amass an army of underwater soldiers to tell the world about the dangers of overfishing, especially of sharks. Jackel first started diving when he still had one leg. Fellow vet Chris Maddeford joined Jackel for his first dive after his second leg amputation.

JR.: He thought we were going to forget about him for a little while. We told him we just needed him to heal up and we promised him we'd get him back down there as soon possible, and here he is.

Here I am.

SAGASTUME: Two years ago, Jackel's vehicle went airborne after running over an IED in Afghanistan. The wheels blew off, and he and four other soldiers were trapped inside a burning vehicle loaded with ammunition. Once Jackel regained consciousness...

JR.: I used my right leg to put the fire out and inside of a vehicle where 50-caliber rounds were cooking off and saved the lives of the four guys that were inside the vehicle, as well as myself.

SAGASTUME: Now, as he plunges into the cool waters of the Atlantic, he's found a new purpose in life, something he never understood until he dove with wild sharks.

JR.: It's not just about shark conservation anymore. It's about preservation, ocean conservation.

SAGASTUME: Apex predators like sharks sit at the top of the food chain. And as they disappear from our oceans, the whole marine food chain is at risk. Marlene Krpata was a former captain and military intelligence officer in Kosovo and then went to Iraq.

CAPTAIN MARLENE KRPATA: I got to do a lot of amazing things, and part of me yearns to go back every day.

SAGASTUME: But in 2006, her life changed when a mortar attack exploded behind her. Her right leg was mangled, and she was in chronic pain for years.

KRPATA: It was just so painful. I gained so much weight because I was so inactive and just so unhappy. I really hated my leg. I envy the guys who lost their limbs.

SAGASTUME: Krpata sank into a deep depression and tried to commit suicide. Eventually, she recovered and had her leg amputated. She's healing with the help of a therapy dog and her new underwater mission.

KRPATA: The ocean is important to me. So to keep that safe, you have to start at the top - near the top of the eco chain, and sharks are one of those. And if that goes extinct, that changes that whole ecosystem and will ruin my one place where I find solace. And I believe it will.

SAGASTUME: A documentary about Operation Blue Pride is due out this fall. By then, the organizers hope to have recruited about a dozen more soldiers. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Patricia Sagastume, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

PFEIFFER: Still to come, reaction in India to the death penalty sentence there against four men convicted of rape. Back in one minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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