ARLINGTON, Va. — The shimmering waters of the Pacific Northwest’s most beautiful lakes have served as the backdrop for emotional moments this summer for the Soldier Recovery Unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington.
At this time of year, it’s common to witness people holding onto a rope while wake-surfing behind a boat as it roars across the lake under the hot summer sun. But something’s different about one group out there: they’re cheering, clapping, and high-fiving as an injured veteran bursts into an ear-to-ear grin while riding triumphantly on the surface of waters they thought they'd never enjoy again.
Since 2018, hundreds of veterans in Washington state have spent weekends they'll never forget doing things they believed they couldn't do as part of a program for injured military veterans. Seeing their reactions makes Terry Knight, a program organizer, tear up on occasion.
"The best thing is you'll take somebody out who's scared, they don't like the water and don't know what they're doing, and they get into the water for the first time. You start towing them, you encourage them, and then they finally get up," Knight said. "The rider's only 10-15 feet behind the boat, so you can kind of talk back and forth. You see the look on their face when they finally make it up. When they get back in the boat, they're so happy."
Knight knows the struggle himself. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — better known as Lou Gehrig's disease — about seven years ago as he pursued a career in nursing while serving in the Reserves following active duty service. It's caused him to stop doing some of the things he loved to do.
"I used to do all kinds of outdoor activities — hiking, biking, that sort of thing," he said. "I've slowly had to give some things up, like scuba diving.”
He found out about wake surfing and decided to give it a try, despite fearing he wouldn't be able to because he lost his grip in his right hand. But with some help, Knight stood up, and "man, I'm telling you, it was the biggest thrill ever."
The experience inspired Knight to get involved with organizing a program in Washington state. He soon realized it was about more than getting out on the water — it was about community.
The first time Knight set up such an event was back in June 2018 at American Lake. They surfed for two and half days thanks to volunteers who offered their boats. Since then, the event has attracted a local sponsor who has provided boats and other supplies, but they still rely on generosity from the community to make the event happen.
"That first event was such a hit," Knight said. "Everyone had such a good time. It went over so well that we did two more that summer. Last year, we ended up with nine events — three overnighters, two for the [SRU], four for the [Department of Veterans Affairs] recreation program, then we did two extra for disabled veterans."
Generally, they plan on four events each year starting in June and continuing into September. They have surfed at locations in Washington state such as American Lake, Nine Mile Falls, and Lake Tapps.
Planning these events is a challenge, because the event is limited by how many boats they can secure, but he doesn't know how many boats to request until he can get an estimate on how many will participate.
They've been getting such a big turnout lately that they had to initially turn down nine people from the SRU. Thankfully, the community came through once again.
"We were able to get two other volunteer boats to come, so what we'll do with those nine is do a one-day event at American Lake," he said.
And that's not the first time locals' generosity has helped events happen. Earlier this year they had 50 people sign up and not nearly enough boats to accommodate them, with just six boats available. But word spread and soon they had 12 boats, and didn't even need to use the last one.
Initially, the outbreak of COVID-19 caused Knight to worry that they wouldn't be able to do any events this year. But thanks to careful mitigation practices, they've been able to navigate the storm.
"We have a COVID questionnaire, we take temperature, and we require them to wear a mask at check-in until cleared," he said, noting they rely on their responses to make those decisions since they don't have coronavirus tests. In situations where participants can't socially distance, they are required to wear a mask. So far, they've avoided any problems.
And it's a good thing, because there's nothing like seeing wake surfing lift the spirits of veterans. Recently, a veteran who suffered a stroke and wasn't able to stand for the activity was able to participate thanks to a specially made surfboard fitted by a seat made by a race car driver.
"He's sitting but he was able to surf, an ear-to-ear smile on his face," recalled Knight. "He was thanking us so much for helping him. He started getting all teared up."
The Army Warrior Care and Transition Program is now the Army Recovery Care Program. Although the name has changed, the mission remains the same: to provide quality complex case management to the Army's wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.