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Wounded military veterans learn to surf in Virginia Beach

Charles Lutz, instructor with VB Surf Sessions, teaches participants how to pop-up during lessons taught by VB Surf Sessions and hosted by the Wounded Warrior Project as a way to help connect veterans and their families at Croatan Beach in Virginia Beach on Friday, Sept. 26, 2020.

KRISTEN ZEIS/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

By STACY PARKER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: September 25, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Veteran Glenn Gain injured his back while serving in the Navy in 2001, shortly after 9/11. He had no idea that 18 years later, his foot would be amputated as a result of that injury.

But he’s determined to not let the disability change him. He loves surfing and has no intention of giving it up.

“It’s very zen for me,” Gain, 43, of Virginia Beach, said Friday morning as he pulled up his wetsuit on the beach at Croatan. “The water lapping on the bottom of the board... It almost puts me in a meditative state.”

Gain joined several other veterans and their families for a surf lesson hosted by the Wounded Warriors Project. Instructors from VB Surf Sessions offered both surfing and paddleboard tips as part of the project’s goal of keeping veterans connected and active.

The nonprofit organization also helps veterans access benefits, employment resources and support groups.

Surf lessons are usually offered several times in the summer, but the coronavirus pandemic caused most of them to be canceled this year, said Katie Schrecker, outreach specialist for the Wounded Warriors Project.

Gain never misses an opportunity to surf. He first tried the sport years ago when he was stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana. He wasn’t sure how the amputation of his leg below the knee last September was going to impact his hobby. He recently tried catching waves with a prosthetic foot, but it filled up with sand.

On Friday, he tested out a new running blade, which he hopes will give him more flexibility when transitioning from laying down on the board to standing up to catch a wave.

“I’m trying to fine tune the pop-up,” Gain said.

Back and neck injuries from his Army days in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t stop Donald “D.R.” Lacey, 48, of Newport News, from signing up for the event.

As a pod of dolphins swam nearby, Lacey glided over a wave on a stand-up paddleboard. He likes to stay active with the help of Wounded Warrior Project events across the region, attending hockey and baseball games and playing paintball. Lacey encourages other veterans to call him if they’re having a bad day.

“You get to know what vets are in your area,” Lacey said. “It’s nice to have that connection.”

Events also help family members connect with others. Several children of veterans surfed alongside each other Friday, laughing together when they fell off the boards.

Veteran Alex Rogers and his wife, Tina, let their sons take the surf lesson while they watched from the beach. Their 13-year-old son, Steven, has a fear of water, but still wanted to try to learn to surf.

“Seeing him with confidence out there is nice,” his dad said.

Tony Pellino, who owns VB Surf Sessions, has been teamed up with the Wounded Warriors Project for five years.

When he watched a veteran with one leg stand up on a board and catch a wave a few years ago, it left an impression on him.

“The determination. ... It’s humbling,” Pellino said. “We really take a lot of things for granted.”

stacy.parker@pilotonline.com

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Glenn Gain, of Virginia Beach, Va., takes to the water in a new prosthetic leg during a surf session hosted by The Wounded Warrior Project and taught by VB Surf Sessions at Croatan Beach in Virginia Beach, Va., on Friday, September 26, 2020.
KRISTEN ZEIS/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT