Rehabbed sea turtle helps local veteran honor fellow soldier

Since James was the fisherman to catch this turtle, he was given the right to name it. He chose Ranger to honor his fellow soldier and Tan for the color of berets Army soldiers graduate with. Credit: Walter Hildebrand/WAVY

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center has released over 100 rehabilitated turtles back into the ocean, but a different kind of release took place Friday in Virginia Beach

“We save sea turtles all the time, but I think this sea turtle might have saved a piece of this soldier, and that was just so incredibly moving to all of us,” said Kathy O’Hara with the Virginia Aquarium.

The turtle, Ranger Tan, was hooked by local fisherman James Spray earlier this week, while he was Hampton at the Buckroe Fishing Pier Ranger Tan with a from the VA hospital in Hampton.

“I was just fishing, hanging out with the VA people, and didn’t catch anything all day and finally the one bite that I got was Ranger Tan,” Spray said.

At the time, Spray was mourning the death of his close friend Jason Benchimol — who was a U.S.Army Ranger in the 75th Ranger regiment.

Gallery: Turtle Release Eases Veterans Pain

Jason and James became fast friends during their service time in the Army. They lost touch over the years, but had reunited at the VA hospital in Hampton.

“We were both having issues that we were struggling with from the military service that we had conducted,” Spray said.

Life brought them back together, but it was cut short.

“Unfortunately, three months ago, he became a statistic in the unfortunate side of suicide,” Spray said.

James had struggled with how to memorialize his friend, until he and a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle met by accident. The Virginia Aquarium lets the fisherman name the turtles they catch — but there has to be a color in the name.

“Ranger Tan came from my close buddy Jason Benchimol,” Spray says. “The tan is the color of the beret that rangers wear …  so I thought what better name than Ranger Tan.”

With his friend in his thoughts Friday, James Spry and Ranger Tan made their way toward the ocean — and gave a last salute for this fellow soldier.

“(James) knew. He was here with us today,” Spray says.