Recovering Veterans Help Injured Sea Lions Return to the Ocean

Following 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, this veteran did not expect his retirement days to be spent caring for rescued sea lions.

Following 20 years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force, seeing combat first hand, saving lives and working in war-torn countries, James Golia did not expect his retirement days to be spent treating and caring for rescued sea lions.

Golia, 51, a volunteer at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, said he found an unlikely way to use his military medic skills to help rehabilitate sea lions--and they, in turn, are helping him during his own recovery.

Golia was a firefighter emergency medical technician who treated those injured on the field. He was deployed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Afghanistan. He returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, permanently disabled.

It was Golia's military connections that informed him about the veteran volunteer programs at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit that rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine mammals.

Golia began volunteering for the Sea Lions for Service Members, a free program that allows recently returned veterans to engage in a therapeutic experience at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center by tending to injured animals and preparing to release them back into the wild.

"I've never been around sea lions before. The whole thing, it's a trip for me. It's totally new--the sounds, the smells, the feeding," Golias said.

Staff at the center said Golia volunteered for a day, and then decided to return weekly to join the sea lion program.

The Sea Lions for Service Members program was created with the idea that veterans would empathize with the injured animals that are recovering and transitioning back to their normal lives, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center said. The staff said this program could instill veterans with a sense of hope and realization that they too can lead a normal life again.

"We're basically doing the same thing, rescuing an animal from the ocean and rehabilitating him and making him better and sending him into the wild again," Golias said. "It's a pretty big deal to me."

As part of the program, volunteers make precisely-weighed fish "smoothies" to be used in tube feedings for the critically injured animals. Participants also clean animal pens and equipment, in addition to other animal care tasks. At the end of the program, the service members attend a patient release and send off the animals they nursed back to health.

Of all the animals he worked with, Golia said he formed a particular connection with the elephant seal named Creole. Creole was rescued in Corona del Mar in February and was underweight and dehydrated. Seven weeks and 150 pounds later, the healthy marine mammal was sent back to sea as Golia watched from the shore.

"You can definitely see when somebody bonds with them and cares about them. It definitely struck him in a certain way," said Kaytee Hackbarth, the lead volunteer at the center.

Golia said he became a different person after his first deployment in 1993. He said these new marine connections have turned him into a different person once again.

"The few hours we spent feeding and cleaning up after these precious animals brought back memories of when I was active duty," Golia said. "Team work and dedication provide comfort and rehabilitation for the animals. The staff and volunteers are professional and genuine, and I'm proud to say that I'm now a permanent volunteer at the center. Sometimes in life, a person should feel compelled to give back, and I'm doing just that."

For more information about the Sea Lions for Service Members program, reach out to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center education director Kirsten Donald at

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