Santa Cruz, Calif. — As a child growing up in El Paso, Texas, Bobby Lane dreamed of surfing. He didn't realize it would save his life.
As a Marine Corps corporal in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, the thought of being in the ocean stuck with Lane, now 27. During the war, he talked with about pursuing it when he came home.
"It's just something that I've always wanted to do. I felt the ocean was calling me," Lane said this week.
Wednesday, Lane and about 16 other veterans — many who are amputees — arrived in Santa Cruz for six days of surfing with Operation Surf. Spun off from San Luis Obispo-based Amazing Surf Adventures' outings with wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines, the group also has taken veterans surfing in Santa Cruz in 2012 and 2013.
They plan to surf at Cowell Beach and Capitola Beach through Tuesday with instructors from Santa Cruz-based Richard Schmidt Surf School and several Santa Cruz pro surfers and big-wave riders.
For Lane, fighting in Iraq tried to crush his dream of surfing — and his life.
During an 11-day stretch in 2007, five roadside bombs struck Lane's infantry platoon. He was exposed to all of them.
Shrapnel lodged in his left arm and his legs, and he removed some of it himself in the shower to avoid being sent home to a hospital. He didn't want to leave his platoon.
Later, Lane was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder — two common injuries among Iraq war vets.
Honorably discharged, Lane moved to San Antonio, Texas, and eventually got involved with Operation Comfort — a Texas group that organizes sports and other activities for wounded veterans.
One day in the garage of the group's founder, Janis Roznowski, he spotted a surfboard.
He shared his dream of surfing with Roznowski, and she said she could make it happen. They made arrangements with Amazing Surf Adventures in 2011, and Lane got his first taste of surfing in the cool water off Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County.
"It was one of the biggest things on my bucket list," he said.
The experience was better than he even imagined. The feeling of rushing to shore on his first wave captured his attention. It unlocked a sense of peace and purpose in his life, he said.
Some of his nightmares of war subsided.
"That first wave I caught changed my life. All the weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Lane said.
But the secret he kept during that first trip was that he was on the brink of suicide.
He told himself that he would fulfill his dream of surfing in California, then end his life when he returned home to Texas.
"I was going to kill myself because of all the stuff I had to deal with," Lane said. "But I realized that my life isn't mine to take."
The experience made him want to "live on" and help as many other veterans as possible. The Operation Surf outings are intended to be fun and empowering, and long days of surfing in the sun are punctuated by smiles and laughter.
Double leg amputees do head stands on soft boards, and they goof off in the playful waves at Cowell's. Organizers said they chose this week because there are low tides in the morning, which provide better surf conditions at Cowell's.
"It's just a perfect place for organic healing," said Van Curaza, leader of Operation Surf.
Curaza of Pismo Beach said Lane "is a testament to what surfing can do for a person's life."
Operation Surf is now a registered nonprofit and it's growing. Events are also planned in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in June and in San Luis Obispo County in October.
Wednesday, as in years past, its Santa Cruz participants arrived with motorcycle and car escorts with flags from Mineta San Jose International Airport. Many residents also went to the Dream Inn on West Cliff Drive — where the veterans are staying to greet them.
An official opening ceremony for Operation Surf will take place at 11:30 a.m. Thursday where the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf meets Cowell Beach. Elected leaders will talk about the group and a color guard will display flags.
"Going out surfing really changed me," Lane said. "It changed my life, and it saved my life for sure."