Surfing is an activity that many San Diegans view as fun and relaxing. However, surfing can be much more than that for certain veterans; it can even be life saving.
A 2013 study by researchers at the Department of Veteran Affairs found that an average of 22 military veterans take their own lives every day in the United States.
That hits home to those living in San Diego, a county with 236,000 veterans. In fact that total is the third highest number of veterans in the country, according to US Census data.
Two organizations in San Diego are focused on keeping veterans active and making a positive difference in the lives of those who have served. The Jimmy Miller Foundation and Operation Amped both introduce surfing to veterans to help them heal – mentally and physically.
Staff Sergeant Chris Dare is a participant in the Jimmy Miller Foundation and served 11 years in the USMC before recently retiring. He has been coming to ocean therapy sessions since January 2015 and says surfing gives him a unique sensory experience.
“When out in the water it is just you and the water in that moment, everything on land does not matter anymore,” Dare said. “You cannot even hear anything on land, so that is a reason why surfing is so surreal and comforting.”
VIDEO: Volunteer Kyle Denitz and Staff Sgt. Chris Dare speak about the benefits that surfing has on veterans. They are both participants in the Jimmy Miller Foundation, which gives free surf lessons to veterans to help them recover from any disabilities they may be facing.
The Jimmy Miller Foundation has been working closely with the United States Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Battalion to help rehabilitate injured veterans and active duty Marines. The non-profit organization holds bi-weekly “ocean therapy” sessions at the Del Mar Jetty in Camp Pendleton and fosters a positive environment to teach military members how to surf.
Meanwhile, Operation Amped is a non-profit organization that holds a three day surf camp in August that hosts 15 veterans and their families in Camp Pendleton. The goal of the weekend is simple, according to co-founder Joseph Gabunilas: “To share the stoke of riding waves with our nation’s injured veterans, or as we refer to them, warriors.”
While there are differences between both organizations, they both share the same goal of exposing disabled veterans to the potential healing powers of surfing.
Saving lives, one wave at a time
“One veteran came up to me at the end of the weekend and said that if it wasn’t for this camp, he wouldn’t be there,” Gabunilas said. “He said he would be in a dark place and would have done something terribly tragic to himself but surfing had become his way of healing.”
This sentiment is shared by the program director for the Jimmy Miller Foundation, Carly Rogers, who echoed Gabunilas’ story about the incredible benefits of surfing.
“We have had multiple Marines who keep coming back and say, ‘This saved my life,’” Rogers said. “We typically see this with those who have had significant combat trauma and PTSD symptoms.”
Both organizations believe in the benefits of surf therapy, but getting veterans up on a wave is not always so simple.
Activities that most people take for granted can be difficult for veterans struggling with certain conditions or injuries. For example, while many people may feel comfortable taking their shirts off at the beach, a veteran may have scars that they feel uncomfortable showing.
“A lot of guys coming to camp are exposing their scars to the general public for the first time,” said David Donaldson, an Operation Amped board member. “But when they are out there surfing, they aren’t thinking about that and are just laser-focused on surfing.”
Donaldson worked as a recreational therapist at the Balboa Naval Medical Center and understands the importance of talking with injured veterans and helping them transition back into society. He noted that these camps are not solely about surfing, but instead about the camaraderie of being able to talk to fellow veterans in a relaxed environment, which can make a positive and lasting impact on their lives.
“This is about creating a space where people can talk to each other,” Donaldson said. “It is as much as a psychological intervention as a physical intervention,”
Surfing also provides a psychological benefit that few activities are able to match.
“We want our veterans to experience that pure moment of flow on the wave, where they are not thinking about anything but being on the wave,” Rogers said.
A strong foundation
Both programs are built on a strong foundation of volunteers ranging from middle schoolers to pro surfers who teach veterans how to surf. The volunteers provide more than simply free surf lessons; they also provide emotional support and friendship for injured veterans often struggling to reacquaint themselves into society.
Kyle Denitz is a surf instructor and volunteers his time as a water safety coordinator with the Jimmy Miller Foundation. He says he enjoys working with Marines because of the unique attitude they bring.
“I have been teaching surfing lessons for a long time and normally when people fall they look to the instructor to see what they did wrong,” Denitz said. “These guys do not care if they fall or rode a great wave, they just want to do it again.”
Both the participants and volunteers feed off the positive energy cultivated in each program and often continue coming back to sessions. This is the case for Dare, who wants to remain an active participant in the Jimmy Miller Foundation well into the future.
“Hopefully one day I can be a volunteer instead of being taught how to surf,” Dare said. “That would be a really cool way to give back.”
Since Operation Amped holds their surf therapy session over the course of an entire weekend, their volunteers and warriors are given ample time to get to know each other. Gabunilas says having this time together is important to the recovery of the veterans.
“The veterans have three surf buddies that they are linked to for the entire weekend,” Gabunilas said. “That way they can build trust and develop a relationship or bond.”
SLIDESHOW: Program director Carly Rogers discusses the support system the Jimmy Miller Foundation creates for veterans at the the ocean therapy sessions. Rogers explains why this is important to helping veterans transition from military to civilian life.
A family affair
Both organizations also use family as a means to support these veterans.
Operation Amped invites the veteran’s families to share the surfing and healing experience with their loved ones through the entire weekend. Gabunilas understands family is the most important part of these veterans’ lives and would not allow them to be left out.
“Part of the healing process is that the warrior will return to the family when the camp is over,” Gabunilas said. “So if you can get the family to share in the experience, that helps tremendously in rehabilitating the veterans.”
The Jimmy Miller Foundation also allows family to join, but they also attempt to make each session feel like a big family. They accomplish this by having dedicated time at the end of each session for the veterans to openly share about their experiences. Rogers says this sharing creates a sense of caring and support, that is important for gaining the trust of first-time participants.
“Surfing culture is really friendly and down to earth,” Rogers said. “There are parts of this culture that take these Marines out of their comfort zone but it also relaxes them.”
For countless veterans struggling with injuries, the chance to “hang ten” can mean their first smile in a long time.
“My hope is that when they look at something challenging, they can remember standing up on that wave for the first time and that it gives them the confidence to try something else,” Rogers said.