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'A spiritual experience': Nonprofit helps vets cope with trauma of war through surfing

Former pro surfer Anthony Ruffo, left, works with Army veteran Mike Neuhart on the proper stance for surfing during Operation Surf in Huntington Beach on Wednesday.

DON LEACH/THE DAILY PILOT (TNS)

By NICK WILSON | The Tribune | Published: October 2, 2019

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Derrick Ross saw four people die on his first day of combat in Afghanistan. He was severely injured by an improvised explosive device in August 2011 and eventually had his leg amputated.

It would be an understatement to say that life back home has been an adjustment after the violence he experienced in his two tours. Surfing has helped with that.

“It was really hard to adjust back to life back home after I retired from the military,” the former combat engineer from Grand Prairie, Texas, said. “Surfing has been a spiritual experience.”

Ross was in Morro Bay on Wednesday with the nonprofit organization Operation Surf, which helps military veterans cope with trauma and injuries by introducing them to surfing.

Ross, who now uses a prosthetic, said he felt isolated and out of sorts after he got back to the U.S. His said his mentality in Afghanistan, where his job was to conduct surveillance for bombs, was of aggression and fight because he’d seen fellow Americans killed.

His teams drove vehicles designed to identify suspicious devices and sometimes checked out potential makeshift bombs on foot, never knowing if enemies were watching.

“It was just a really hard adjustment back to civilian life,” Ross said.

Each year, the program brings 15 new veterans from around the country, some of whom are referred by the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to the Central Coast.

Operation Surf covers the $5,000 in individual expenses for each new participant to join, and surf training is available after the week-long program ends, as well. The Operation Surf experience bonds them in and out of the water.

“Normally, everyone comes here and they’re pretty quiet,” Ross said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, they got some stuff going on.’ But by the end of the week, everyone is part of a tight-knit group, like they’ve known each other for years.”

This year’s group of veterans come from states including Texas, Florida and Virginia, as well as SLO County communities such as Los Osos and Morro Bay.

“I’m just here to help, to talk to people and teach them how to surf,” said Ross, an alumnus of the program.

Surfing helped San Luis Obispo resident and Operation Surf founder Van Curaza through his own battles with addiction in the past.

Now, Operation Surf is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week in SLO County, with sister programs in Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz.

Dozens of participants, instructors and alumni hit the Morro Bay surf on a picturesque, sunny morning as part of the week-long camp.

Veterans shared thoughts and feelings about the horrors of war, and how surfing has helped overcome internal demons and re-adjust to civilian life.

Surfing offers a form of meditation

Curaza said surfing has a meditative quality, demanding sharp concentration and focus, distracting participants from various stresses in their life, bringing happiness and offering a “great night’s sleep.”

He said studies have shown activities like surfing help veterans reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and develop coping mechanisms to accomplish goals and tasks in their life, called self-efficacy.

“When I first started this program, I knew what surfing had done for me,” Curaza said. “It kept me out of trouble because I’d question my decisions, asking myself, ‘If I do this, does that mean I won’t get to surf?’”

Curaza said he’d been sober for five years when he first started helping amputees through surf camps and formed the idea for Operation Surf in 2009.

“We don’t just look at this as a one-and-done type of opportunity,” Curaza said. “We’re here to offer a lifetime of support. Every volunteer involved is part of the outcome, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Local restaurants sponsor some meals, and participants stay at the Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach, where they receive a discount, said Mackenzie Rana, the organization’s director of communications.

“At the end of the day, we’ll look at some of the photos and videos and the participants will laugh at get to see how they did,” Rana said. “It’s a fun slide show of epic surfing and wipeouts.”

Who is eligible to join Operation Surf

Each participant is a military veteran who has never done the program before, though some have surfed previously on a limited basis.

Veterans learn from experienced surfers who teach them the techniques of the sport and how to position themselves to prepare for incoming waves.

“I returned from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan in May,” Sam Stanko of Los Osos said. “I’ve been through some pretty dark times, and surfing and being with this group feels like community. I can’t wait to get out in the water.”

A set of glassy, waist-high waves offered ideal conditions for learning near the Rock on Wednesday, where participants started their day with a group yoga session.

They surfed at Avila Beach on Monday and Tuesday and will hit the waves at Hollister Ranch beach in Santa Barbara County on Thursday.

“Throughout the 10 years, we’ve learned to shape the curriculum in a way that allows vets to heal their body and souls,” Curaza said. “You can see the change in their energy, body language and non-verbal mannerisms. The effect is that this gives them tools to face challenges.”

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©2019 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
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