Wounded Soldiers Catch Some Waves Thanks to Operation Surf

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Mark Brazwell (front) steadies himself while surfing with Operation Surf in Santa Cruz.

When San Jose native Mark Brazwell  suffered debilitating leg injuries in Afghanistan as part of a U.S. Navy explosives ordinance disposal unit, he had no idea that experience would lead to standing tall while riding the waves in Santa Cruz.

“It’s absolutely amazing; it’s beyond words,” Brazwell said, after a morning of surfing off of Cowell’s Beach near the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. After growing up Boogieboarding, bodysurfing, and skateboarding, he always dreamed of actually surfing. Thanks to a nonprofit program called Operation Surf, that dream became a reality last week—despite his injuries.

Brazwell and nine other soldiers—some missing legs, arms, or feet—got a week of surfing April 15-19, thanks to the program coordinated by the nonprofit Amazing Surf Adventures, in conjunction with another nonprofit, Operation Comfort.

“We had no idea it would be this intense, and there would be so much support,” Brazwell said, referring to the dozens of volunteers who made Operation Surf possible.

There were two volunteer surf instructors in the water for every soldier that particular day, with even more on the beach coordinating food, transportation, lodging and anything else the soldiers needed.

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A soldier with no legs gets a tow into the surf by a volunteer, while another volunteer looks on.

Although Brazwell lost significant use of one of his legs after enduring multiple injuries and surgeries, he found himself getting up on the surfboard time after time with the encouragement and coaching by the volunteers.

Even soldiers with double leg amputations, double arm amputations, and in one case both legs and an arm missing, were either getting upright on their boards, or at least enjoying rides on top of the waves while lying on their boards. Some wore prosthetics, some did not.

Each time one of the soldiers caught a wave, hoots and hollers would rise up from the rest of the surfers in the group. Even from a distance, spectators could see the smiles.

“Every year I’m blown away by the tenacity of these soldiers. They’re so tough. They exceed our expectations every time,” said Richard Schmidt, owner of Richard Schmidt Surf School, who has been helping with Operation Surf in Santa Cruz for three years. The Operation-Surfprogram helps between 20 and 40 surfers annually with a spring camp in Santa Cruz and a fall camp in Pismo Beach.

“We’re just a bunch of surfers in a situation to help our nation’s wounded, and were happy to do it,” said Van Curaza, who founded both Amazing Surf Adventures and its program, Operation Surf. He owns of Van Curaza Surf School in Pismo Beach.

Curaza started working with Operation Comfort in 2006 to teach rehabilitating soldiers how to surf, despite having suffered severe injuries and amputations. The soldiers come from the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, in Texas. Each participant must gain approval to attend from a team of people, including doctors, therapists, and commanding officers.

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Richard Schmidt and Van Curaza.

After a few years of offering one week in Pismo Beach, Curaza asked his friend Schmidt three years ago to help put on a second week. Using his contacts in the area, Schmidt brings together an array of local volunteers and businesses to put on Operation Surf in Santa Cruz. Everyone wants to help because, “These guys sacrifice so much to give us the freedom to live,” he said.

“Every year I’m blown away by the tenacity of these soldiers. They’re so tough. They exceed our expectations every time,” said Schmidt.

Both Schmidt and Curaza said they believe in the healing power of the ocean to speed the soldiers’ rehabilitation, and even change their lives long term.  “It exposes these guys to a different reality,” said Schmidt.

Heather Miller, a recreational therapist with the Center for the Intrepid, agreed.

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From left to right: Kelli Roberts, of Operation Comfort, Mark Brazwell, Van Curaza, and Heather Miller.

“Being on the ocean, it’s mind, body, and soul, for sure,” she said. “They’re not thinking about what’s going on in their body…it’s something you can’t replicate anywhere else.”

Curaza said he believes getting the soldiers to do something they never thought they could do physically after life-changing injury, could even lift depression and prevent suicides.

“You never know if these experiences could save a life,” Curaza said. “It changes their outlook on life.”

That drive to help change lives is driving Curaza to expand the program even further to help more soldiers. He hopes to raise enough money to repeat the camps multiple times a year.

Said Schmidt, “The more we can get these guys in the water the better.”

See the Amazing Surf Adventures website to support Operation Surf.

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Volunteers help a soldier get into a special beach wheelchair after a session of surfing.

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Soldiers and volunteers gather on the water for a group photo during Operation Surf in Santa Cruz.

 

 

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