Five female veterans of the US Armed Services joined the National Park Service for a week of removing marine debris from Biscayne National Park, July 5-11, 2021. The veterans were sponsored by the Wounded American Veterans Experience SCUBA (WAVES Project), non-profit established to provide opportunities for veterans with service-connected disabilities and their families to experience scuba diving. Other partners in the project included the Women Divers Hall of Fame, an organization that recognizes women leaders and innovators in the diving community. The project was made possible through funding from the National Park Foundation, the official charitable partner of the National Park Service.
Anne Wright of NPS stated in her summary of the project “It was one of my favorite projects of my career to-date, and we couldn’t have asked for a better group. We collected over 587 pounds of marine debris, and over 3 football fields worth of abandoned anchor and trap line. Additionally, there is now a newly dubbed “WAVES Reef” at Biscayne National Park.”
Here are the official stats for the week:
- 464 total pieces of debris
- 35 different types of debris collected (e.g. monofilament, trap line, trap parts, glass bottles etc.)
- 1082 feet of line (trap, anchor etc.)
- 587 pounds of debris
The veterans are part of an all-female National Park Service and partner organization dive team, with staff members from Biscayne National Park and the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center, WAVES Project instructional staff member, as well as the University of Miami. The team is working from a Horizon Divers charter boat, also crewed by an entirely female team. Donate now to support mission oriented diving projects. Meet some of the veterans who participated.
Esmeralda Ortega spent 13 years in the Marine Corps as a meteorologist and oceanographer. She said, “After my deployment to Afghanistan, I started to lose my Marine brothers to suicide year after year and with the addition of traumas, I lost myself. Diving has been the first thing and the only thing that has pulled me out of the darkness I was living in for the past six years. I’m finally seeing some semblance of a more normal life. Participating in this project is providing me the opportunity to continue gaining the independence I lost and having a clear path to make a difference provides me a sense of accomplishment and advances my journey towards healing.”
Karen Cocozza is a US Army combat veteran, having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2009. “Iraq was such a big experience. Some was bad, some was good, but it was all big. Afterwards, regular life felt a little dull in comparison. It was tough to feel excited about anything. When I found WAVES Project, I knew it was going to be something important in my life. They specifically work with veterans, so I felt comfortable taking that first step in reaching out and applying for the program. I immediately felt at home there. They know that we’re coming to them with mental and/or physical issues from our time in the military and they work with each one of us, wherever we’re at, to get us comfortable diving. And there is nothing like diving. It is peace and quiet and excitement and wonder all at the same time. It has given me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. I am so grateful for this opportunity to work with the National Park Service because, not only do I get to dive in a beautiful location with a group of amazing women, but I get to give something back at the same time.”
Abbie Johnson served as a musician in the US Navy, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Her favorite part of the week was the opportunity to participate in ocean conservation. Abbie says, “The ocean did a lot for me and my recovery, so it was amazing to have the opportunity to give back to the ocean. I also love to surf, and have previously spent more time on the surface of the water, so it was incredible to be able to spend more time under the surface, healing myself through healing the ocean. I also loved having a task to do underwater. It gave our dives a sense of purpose and was a great way to give back in a small way.”
Charlamain Caycedo served 4 years as a Master at Arms in the US Navy. She is a third generation veteran. Her grandfather served in the Korean War and her father in the Vietnam era. She says she “enlisted to serve her country and follow in their footsteps.” Her first duty station was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from 2001-2003 and then the USS Peleliu in 2003 with the 1st Expeditionary Strike Group, where she assisted with Operation Enduring Freedom. This week, Char has most enjoyed the camaraderie with other female veterans and scientists, working towards the mission of cleaning and protecting our coral reefs.
Linsay Rousseau Burnett is a US Army Iraq War combat veteran. She was a combat photographer and public affairs sergeant for the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. Linsay was deployed to Iraq from 2005-2006, documenting U.S. Army combat and humanitarian operations.
This is not Linsay’s first experience with the National Park Service. Both of her parents are retired National Park visitor and resource protection rangers, Ginny Rousseau and Dennis Burnett. Linsay says, “I grew up in the Park Service, so being able to participate in this trip is incredibly important to me. I am a Park Service kid through and through. I’m also a water baby, so the ocean has always been my happy place. Being out in nature is where I feel the most at home—hiking, camping, etc. Protecting the environment and conservation has always been vitally important to me. I was raised with a deep respect for the environment and protecting our vital natural resources.
Author credit: Unknown NPS Staff & Anne E. Wright, NPS