Dive into the Heart of Our Military Salute Program Through the Eyes of Our Dedicated Staff

Saluting Service

By Jason Bush, Manager, Military Salute Program at Georgia Aquarium

How My Journey Began

I grew up in South Florida, doing anything and everything in and around the water that I possibly could – from fishing, skiing, and kayaking, to snorkeling, surfing, and saltwater aquarium keeping. I was quite fond of the ocean and marine life. So much so, that I played a valuable role in getting a grant from the school board to have saltwater aquariums in my high school oceanography and marine biology classrooms. I was even the sole caretaker of them. 

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 1998 and stayed on active duty until August 2003, with an additional two years as an inactive reserve. During that time, I participated in several deployments, including Operation Determined Response when the USS Cole was attacked in 2000, Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq, and the Battle of Nasiriyah.

My passion for the ocean started when I was young. I always wanted to dive as a kid but could never afford it. While on my first deployment in Thailand in 2000, I opted to obtain my open-water certification and my love for diving began. Later I obtained Dive Master, Public Safety Diver, Rescue Diver, Underwater Criminal Investigator, and several other certifications. I am currently working on my instructor certification. 

Service After Serving

Like many veterans returning from combat with invisible wounds, I too, returned a different person with wounds that cut deep, but without truly realizing it or plain refusing to. In 2009, I was referred to the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), where I attended an outdoor rehabilitative mental health retreat. After nearly six years of feeling lost, this is where I realized I was not alone and found the hope I was missing.

I continued attending events, connecting with fellow veterans and resources that would give me the ability to accept nothing but the best of myself again. I fought to find that new normal and get to a place where I could give back and help fellow veterans who were also struggling. In 2013, a position opened up at WWP, facilitating the very retreat that was the first turning point in my life post-war. I would remain with WWP for the next 10 years, hosting 10-14 retreats per year for both veterans and couples. My time with WWP would conclude on the outreach team, where I was fortunate enough to work with Georgia Aquarium’s Military Salute both in-house and in the field.

I wholeheartedly believe in the holistic healing nature can bring us if we allow it to, especially the water. The peace I feel underwater is almost indescribable. I want to share this experience with every veteran I can dealing with both the visible and invisible wounds of war. Diving is something that can be adaptable to any disability, making it a healthy coping mechanism for a wide range of injuries and ailments.

Saluting Military Service 

In early 2023, I was told that the Military Salute Manager position at Georgia Aquarium would soon become available. Having seen this incredible program in action first-hand through WWP, I deeply believed in its efficacy and the benefits that it gave to all participants and wanted to help this program reach new heights. It was a huge leap of faith when I was offered the position, but I believed in myself and this program. I accepted the challenge and started my adventure as Military Salute Manager in April 2023. It will be challenging to take the program to the next level. But the result will be worth the effort if it means that the program can stretch beyond the walls of the Aquarium – and hopefully the state of Georgia – reaching as many veterans as possible.

When did the Military Salute Program begin?

  • Georgia Aquarium’s Military Salute program first began as part of the Veterans Immersion Program back in 2005, when the first guests to participate in the Journey with Gentle Giants swim and dive program were a group of wounded veterans.

Who does it serve?

  • Military Salute currently serves wounded, ill, and/or injured veterans along with their families, Gold Star Families, and several non-veteran groups, such as Children Healthcare of Atlanta and Shepherd Center patients.

What is its purpose?

  • The purpose of Military Salute is to introduce and promote the healing nature of the underwater world to our nation’s wounded, ill, and injured heroes and their families by engaging in camaraderie, recreation, education, service, and conservation efforts through programs within the Aquarium and programs held outside our walls.

Unlocking the Healing Power of our Ocean in Key Largo 

For the first time in 2023, our veteran’s field program traveled to Key Largo, FL, to work with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF). I, along with members from our dive immersion, dive safety, and dive operations teams were joined by a group of wounded, injured, and/or ill veterans. These participants joined us through organizations we currently partner with, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, Patriots for Disabled Divers, and H20 who help connect us with potential program candidates.

Weather is always an unpredictable factor when diving. Fortunately, CRF has plenty of projects to engage in both in and out of water. During our trip in August, we participated in inspecting and cleaning man-made coral trees within the in-water nursery. These platforms provide a space for the staghorn corals to grow until they reach a size suitable for transplantation to local reefs. During another trip down to Key Largo in December, we were unable to dive due to weather conditions. But we worked on land building a dozen coral trees used specifically for growing boulder corals. We then took that newfound knowledge and utilized it to help us identify the corals amongst the reefs that had been planted by CRF. Additionally, we were able to dive in a few reef areas and recovered fishing lines and various tackles found attached to reef structures.

Check out our veteran’s field program trip to Key Largo, FL.

The Future of Military Salute

Currently, our veteran’s field program has funds for an annual trip that focuses on education, conservation, and service. We hope to expand and include additional trips in the future, partnering with marine sanctuaries and other organizations whose mission aligns with that of Georgia Aquarium and Military Salute.

The outdoors, nature, and the underwater world are extremely healing for those who struggle with visible and invisible wounds. This program is especially meaningful because it provides, not only, a unique and healing environment for veterans within the Aquarium, but also offers opportunities outside the Aquarium to participate in missions of service through engaging underwater conservation projects. This gives veterans purpose on a larger scale that can be hard to find post-active duty. Engaging in service again is often the key ingredient in the healing process for our veterans. At the very core of this program, is the opportunity for veterans and their families to reconnect, re-engage, and heal alongside like-minded individuals. This is our mission and what we aim to provide for years to come.

Personal Passion

All unique programs under the Military Salute are important to me because my passion is rooted in actively serving my fellow wounded veterans and their families. There’s no greater honor for me than being a part of helping them to find their “new normal”. Helping their healing begin or continuing to utilize this unique and holistic approach. The reason I am here today is because of individuals and organizations over the past 20 years who have encouraged and pushed me to connect with my inner strength, not give up on myself, and strive to find that new normal so that I can live my life intentionally with purpose and fulfillment.

As an organization, we have the ability and means to change lives. Not by re-creating the wheel, but by being another spoke of support in the lives of the men, women, and families that have given so much so that we can enjoy the freedoms we do today.


Georgia Aquarium is a leading 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Atlanta, Ga. that is Humane Certified by American Humane and accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Georgia Aquarium is committed to working on behalf of all marine life through education, preservation, exceptional animal care, and research across the globe. Georgia Aquarium continues its mission each day to inspire, educate, and entertain its millions of guests about the aquatic biodiversity throughout the world through its engaging exhibits and tens of thousands of animals across its eight major galleries.

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