Surfers glide through waves, towels lie on the beach and wetsuits bob in the water as far as the eye can see. In Santa Cruz, boarders are always visible from the coast, buoying in the water.
Yet this week there was a new group of surfers at Cowell Beach. Soldiers — wounded service members of five different conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan — experienced local surf culture as part of Operation Surf.
This is the first time the event has come to Santa Cruz, after previously being held in Pismo Beach. Local donors funded the event and volunteers made it a reality. Santa Cruz businesses, like Richard Schmidt’s Surfing School and the Dream Inn, collaborated to provide lodging for around 15 service members and a week of surf therapy in the warm weather.
“What’s really nice [is] the support from the community,” Schmidt said. “The Crow’s Nest, I Love Sushi and Paradise Grill all gave food, and kids came out with signs on the last day saying, ‘Support Our Troops.’”
Participating soldiers came from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, a medical facility that works with Operation Comfort, a nonprofit philanthropy group that focuses on recreational therapy.
Operation Surf, founded by amputee surfer Rodney Roller, was organized by nonprofit Amazing Surf Adventures to provide recreational surf therapy.
“[The service members] started asking about surfing,” Schmidt said. “I told them to come out to Santa Cruz. We really rolled the red carpet out for them. It was very successful.”
Recreational therapy takes soldiers out of the medical center, gets them active in a sport, and fulfills their desire to go outdoors and get moving.
“[It’s] basically diversion therapy,” said Heather Miller, a therapist with Operation Surf. “It takes a sport or an activity that these guys enjoy doing and it takes away from the fact they’re working on their core, their muscle strength, their endurance.”
Trent Alexander Winstead, a 19-year-old rifleman with the U.S. Marine Corps, was wounded in December and lost his right foot as a result. Operation Surf introduced him to surfing, which he described as “a workout and very therapeutic.”
“It was awesome to really feel the power of the waves,” Winstead said.
Winstead said he was thankful for everyone’s hospitality and for the work of the event organizers, participants and volunteers. Volunteer Brent Edwards expressed gratitude and respect for young soldiers like Winstead in return.
“He’s a young Marine, and it’s just an amazing thing — the guy is just so tough and has such spirit,” Edwards said. “It really puts things in perspective.”
Edwards, who is a Marine veteran himself and has lived in Santa Cruz for 20 years, said he had it “good” compared to the young men, but that “you’d never know” the struggles that face the soldiers — all because of their spirit of resilience.
Some of the riders had never surfed before, pre-injury or not.
“We thought it [would] be really challenging,” Schmidt said. “But they really exceeded our expectations. It was pretty inspiring.”
Riders chose between two sets of specially-made boards, the short board and the long board. Paul Lambert, 30-year-old military veteran, r
ode the short board.
“[It is] a lot more subtle than a soft [long] board. It’s easier to catch and easier to fall off as well,” Lambert said.
Some surfers were injured during Operation Surf, with at least one surfer getting a bloody nose from trying to stand on his board. Their surf instructors distributed a special reward for courage and perseverance.
“He got a ‘Purple Wave Award’ for being injured in the way of surfing,” Schmidt said of the injured surfer. These awards were given out to the soldiers for their bravery in the face of cold surf.
By the end of the week, the soldiers were awestruck, hungry and tired, but the event was one that balanced health and relaxation, focusing on recreational therapy while offering a week-long getaway in California.
Miller, who worked with the soldiers throughout the week, said they’re “healing but they’re happy.”
For her, the highlight was “seeing the looks on their faces, [and] seeing a one-legged surfer doing a handstand on a surfboard.”