By Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public AffairsApril 29, 2015
PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- When a Texas-based Soldier found himself hospitalized with serious injuries to almost every part of his body after being struck by a drunk driver in 2014, he had no idea what his future would hold as he tried to pick up the pieces and started down the long road of recovery and adaptation as an injured Soldier.
On April 21-27 that road led Sgt. George Guerra, of Army North at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and 32 other wounded service members and veterans from the United States and United Kingdom to the calming waters of the Pacific Ocean and Monterey Bay as they participated in the sixth annual Operation Surf Santa Cruz.
"I was worried, but also excited," Guerra recalled after learning he would be participating in the program. "I hadn't even gone swimming in almost a year, but was excited just to come to California because it is so beautiful, and surfing here has been an amazing experience."
Operation Surf is a week-long, all-inclusive event hosted by the non-profit organization Amazing Surf Adventures. The event for wounded military members helps participants work to overcome the perceived limitations of their physical and psychological disabilities by exposing them to the healing powers of the ocean through adaptive surfing. Surfing instructors from the Van Curaza and Richard Schmidt surf schools included a veritable who's-who list of Santa Cruz professional surfers. Three-time Mavericks surf contest winner Darryl "Flea" Virostko, Ken "Skindog" Collins, Anthony Ruffo, Mike Gerhardt, Anthony Tashnick, Marcel Soros and others joined together with Hawaiian legends like big wave pioneer and waterman Laird Hamilton to share their knowledge, expertise and love of surfing with the wounded Soldiers.
"For many participants, the trip to Operation Surf is their first time leaving the hospital since being injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, making this unique and highly effective healing tool an invaluable part of their early recovery," said Amazing Surf Adventures Founder Van Curaza. "At previous Operation Surf Santa Cruz events, the wounded heroes have been astounded at the outpouring of love and appreciation from the Santa Cruz community and its many volunteers."
For Staff Sgt. Paul Gfeller, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, his road also led him to the Santa Cruz area April 25. He was one of about 20 service member from the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center who made the 45-minute drive northward from the Presidio of Monterey to work closely with other volunteers from around the community lending a helping hand in making Operation Surf run smoothly.
Gfeller, a combat veteran, said that while he couldn't remember where he heard about the event, he felt strongly that this was something he wanted to be involved in.
"It is my way of giving back from my experience in Iraq as one of those guys that made it back intact, so this really means a lot to me," said an emotional Gfeller. "It is very heart-wrenching but really exciting as well. I am happy for the participants that they were selected to go through this, and it's just really comforting knowing they are being well taken care of and have this great experience. Whatever trials they are facing right now I hope that this in some way helps soothe those trials."
Gfeller said that it was healing for him just watching the participants as they rode the waves.
"Just seeing them in the water is soothing. So I can only imagine what being out there and getting that experience is like. I know without a doubt that they are going to come back with some sense of relief and happiness," said Gfeller. "As a combat vet you almost feel that sometimes people forget; they've forgotten about what you've gone through and what you've done. So seeing everyone come together -- helping those who really need it -- in a way breaks down the frustration that's built up and helps make sense of everything."
After three days at Cowell's beach in Santa Cruz, Operation Surf moved the venue on April 25 to the rolling waves that break adjacent to the picturesque beach town of Capitola. The people involved gathered to be greeted by Capitola Mayor Dennis Norton during a small welcoming ceremony that marked the official start of the day's activities. Marine Lt. Col. David Winnacker, commanding officer 4th Force Reconnaissance Company, Alameda, followed Norton with a heartfelt motivational speech reminding everyone of the reasons they were there and recognizing each critical role they play in making Operation Surf happen. Earlier, Winnacker's unit had provided the honorary color guard for the arrival ceremony held April 21. Winnaker later traded in his uniform for a wetsuit and surfboard to join the wounded service members in the lineup as a water volunteer.
However, not all the wounded service members were injured on deployments.
THE OTHER ROAD
On June 10, 2014, Guerra was anticipating deploying with his unit in about a month's time when the road he took was literally Interstate-35 in San Antonio. This was where he was when a truck driver driving the wrong way struck Guerra's vehicle head on. The other driver, who had mixed medication with alcohol, was killed on impact. Guerra has spent the last 10 months trying to cope with and recover from his injuries. He said he suffered multiple fractured bones to his foot, a knee fractured in three places that was compounded by a torn meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament. Additionally, it may have spliced some nerves that left him with "drop foot," where the foot does not respond to lifting and just flops on the floor making walking extremely difficult. He also fractured his hip and pierced a lung with one of his ribs, which required the insertion of a tube to re-inflate. This was all in addition to a mild traumatic brain injury.
"I still feel my injuries in the water," said Guerra. "While surfing I've gotten banged and hit and runover, and I feel the pain in my injured areas, but I just push on because I know the body can go further than what you feel. I know I am in pain, but when I'm out there surfing -- the whole adrenaline of catching a wave and being able to do that -- in a way you temporarily forget about it, which is really nice."
"It's one of those things where we all have our issues here, and when we are out there surfing we are doing more than we thought we could with our limitations and disabilities," said Guerra. "It's amazing seeing people overcome their limitations out there every day. I've seen single amputees all the way to a quad amputee being able to surf. And when someone sees that it's like 'how are they surfing?' and it's just mind-blowing."
In a way that was reminiscent of "military efficiency" and must have felt somewhat familiar to the visiting participants, each person involved in Operation Surf had specific assigned duties and was distinguished by a colored shirt or jersey. Land crew volunteers wore light blue, water volunteers wore white, instructors were in red, and participants decked out in bright green. Each job was crucial in its contributions to Operation Surf.
Airman 1st Class Lindsi Jacobson, 517th Training Group, wearing a light blue land crew shirt with the Operation Surf logo, spent the day as a barista. She served coffee to participants, instructors and volunteers.
"I saw Operation Surf in an email and instantly fell in love with it," said Jacobson, who use to teach surfing lessons in her hometown of Los Angeles. "When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a low-key, tiny event and it blew my mind when I got here. When I saw how much of an impact it had on the disable veterans, it put me in tears. I can see these guys and what they have given for their country. And there is the possibility, God forbid, that any one of us could end up in the same position. And it just makes you think about what you're fighting for and what you're putting on the line and what they have already given for us and our freedom."
Steve Kurtaugh, Operation Surf volunteer coordinator, says first priority is given to military volunteers for the weekend days of the event. These volunteer slots are in the most demand, but allow for service members to participate without conflicting with their military schedules. He also noted that there is a new challenge every year to inform service members about the program since most of those who volunteer are no longer in the area the following year.
"We are thrilled to have active-duty military service members volunteer, particularly from Monterey and the language institute that is so close to us. I think it means a lot to the participant to have people of their own group looking out for them, caring for them. And I think it means a lot to the service member to mix with Soldiers from their organizations that have given so much," said Kurtaugh. "It's a mutual opportunity to help each other and really bond in a brotherly and sisterly way."
This sentiment was echoed by Guerra.
"For me, having the service members who are volunteering out here is like having your brothers and sisters there helping you," said Guerra. "Everyone needs help and they know we are in need, and they are there to volunteer their time so that we can get better. It feels really good, it is really appreciated. It's awesome knowing that they care, that more people than you think care."
THE ROAD AHEAD
As the week of surfing wraps up, the journey will go on for Guerra and the other wounded veterans, but hopefully that road will be a little smoother thanks to everyone who came together for Operation Surf.
"I'd like to surf a lot more now. I want to teach my wife, my dad and my family because it's amazing," said Guerra. "It helps with people who are having hard times. Before you go surfing you have this mentality, and then when you surf it takes your troubles and cares away. I've talked to people who admitted to having a real hard time and said this surf trip had changed them and now they want to help other people to be able to surf and they just want to get stronger and keep on going."
He has positive thoughts for the future of the program. "I hope Operation Surf gets more support and a bigger group and continues to grow. It's an amazing program and a lot of people, myself included, would love to come back. So I hope it's around for many more years. Maybe one day I could even come back as an instructor. Right now I am just a little fish, but to be able to come back and help someone else out that needs it -- that would be amazing. I hope so."
See more photos from Operation Surf Santa Cruz on the Presidio's Flickr page: http://tiny.cc/44tjxx