Wounded warriors practice healing with Operation Surf

By MICHAEL TODD | Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. | Published: April 13, 2019

COWELL BEACH (Tribune News Service) — For some veterans, the hardest part about combat is enduring normality at home after war.

For Kyle Kelly, a former Army combat engineer from "the sticks" of Northeast Texas, the Stateside adjustment was eased by surfing.

"When you're in combat, you can only control that so much. The best thing that you can do is to control how you react to it and hope you make the best decision," Kelly said as he watched his fellow service men and women ride their first waves at Cowell Beach on Friday morning. "It's no different in the water. You can't stop the waves from coming."

At war, he loved his difficult job: "We were either blowing stuff up or looking for explosives."

Kelly misses having such a clear and immediate duty.

"I wish I was still there," Kelly said.

The rabbit hole

By volunteering for Avila Beach-based nonprofit Operation Surf, which is sending 15 combat-wounded veterans into the waves off Cowell Beach through April 16, Kelly found the connection he said many veterans miss in civilian life.

"One of the biggest things that sends guys down the rabbit hole is that lost connection, that shared purpose to be on the same mission every day," Kelly said.

The recovery process also has helped people overcoming substance abuse disorders – the types of addictions that have rattled the global surf community.

Operation Surf founder Van Curaza overcame addiction while serving others who could use some time in the ocean.

"All we're doing is trying to share with our warriors what we receive as surfers: that clarity and spiritual connection with the ocean," Curaza said before paddling out on his longboard.

Each time a new participant – visible in their green rash guards – stood up on a wave, Curaza and his volunteers all cheered and applauded.

"Once you're in the water, you're 100-percent focused on your environment," Curaza said. "It's better than any prescription pill you could ever imagine."

For Kelly, it's better than clinical therapy.

"I'm not a doctor, but sitting in a chair and talking to a therapist, to me, is only going to do so much," Kelly said. "It's typically 'Let's take all these meds and check in next week.' That's not therapy for me. That's putting a Band-Aid on the problem."

The problems might be visible or subtle – such as the permeating stress of trauma.

"A lot of the participants carry around this guilt. When they see people who they don't know caring about them and honoring them, they reconnect."


Former Marine and event volunteer Ron Holtgrew grew up surfing at Huntington Beach before he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1984. But the distractions of adulthood removed him from the ocean. But two years ago, Operation Surf brought him back to surfing.

Holtgrew volunteered with Operation Surf in 2017 and later became a participant.

"It allowed me to get out of my own head," Holtgrew said. "Just being back in the water again after being away for 25 years, it gave me a whole new outlook. It really is about the healing."

He works with other veterans in recovery through Veterans Affairs in Fresno.

Operation Surf board member Alicia Suits said the organization helps veterans and active duty service members restore their daily confidence.

Volunteer David Simmons said Operation Surf's success is its inclusive welcome to people who deserve the ocean's healing.

"As has been said, we all need the chance to escape our regrets from the past and our fears of the future," Simmons said.

In the water

Each surfer is accompanied by a surf instructor, including some notable watermen from Santa Cruz.

Former pro surfer and longtime Westsider Anthony Ruffo said his role as a surf instructor inspires his own growth.

Ruffo has overcome battles with sobriety and rekindled his passion for surfing, which he commits to daily.

"From my personal story, it was about surrendering my ego and my pride and opening up the doors of learning to be on the side where I am now," Ruffo said. "This life is way calmer. I get to surf all the time.I might not have been a world champion, but I get to surf like one."


Before paddling out, the group gathered on the beach to stretch and prepare for their two-hour session.

Former Marine Dominic Green led a brief yoga routine to "get them all loosey goosey."

"This week's pretty full on," Green said. "They're exhausted by the end of it because we go hard. And they've never surfed before so they're going zero to a million."

Kyle Kelly's fiancée, Emily Crews, said Operation Surf has had a lasting impact on her future husband's active life.

"It settled his mind so much," Crews said. "And being able to help the other guys, being part of a team, it's been a huge difference."


(c)2019 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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