SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — It’s not unusual for the waters off Santa Cruz to be filled with surfers trying to escape the demands of everyday life in the freedom and solitude of the sea.
“You get out there and physically get into the water and now every single cell in your body is alive,” said ocean researcher Wallace J. Nichols. “Your brain gets to connect to yourself.”
Nichols is among a group of therapists and researchers who are using a unique program called Operation Surf to help wounded soldiers recover and return to society. Since the summer of 2008, nearly 200 soldiers have participated in the program.
Operation Surf instructor and long-time surfer Van Curaza told KTVU he can see a spark in the eyes of the veterans after they begin riding waves that was missing before they hit the surf.
“I would love to say that I would like them to get hooked, but what I would really like to do is to see a spark of hope ignited in their lives to where I know they can achieve some of the challenges they have in front of them,” he said. “I think surfing can do that for people. “
The four-day class in the waters of Santa Cruz starts with teaching the soldiers fundamentals and then they head out to the water.
After a few days in the water, Army Spec. Darron Lewis was laughing again.
“It was like a concussion,” he told KTVU of the day he was wounded and lost his leg. “It was like we hit an IED and you start seeing smoke everywhere. I though we was about to blow up so I started to screaming because I couldn’t get out and didn’t know my leg was messed up.”
Of the experience with Operation Surf, Lewis said with a smile that “I felt like it was going to hurt (falling off the board) but it didn’t. “
Meanwhile, Army Sgt. Jordan Sisco felt the class had given him renewed hope.
“It’s such a great feeling to get out in the water again let alone surf,” he said. “So I’m really excited. I’m glad I came out here.”
Curaza told the soldiers he hoped they came away with one lesson.
“You start figuring it out – You’ll fall, you’ll get back up,” he said. “You know what I mean; you just get back up and do it again.”