Plunging into civilian life

U.S. Army Infantry Staff Sgt. James Gmachowki (left) confers with Jay Graybeal, U.S. Navy, prior to the opening ceremony of the 9th annual Operation Surf Santa Cruz at Cowell's beach in Santa Cruz Friday. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Operation Surf created for veterans

SANTA CRUZ — Andrew Cunningham served in the U.S. Army from 1998 until this year, when a parachuting accident forced his retirement. He is now working through the surgeries and therapies to repair his legs.

It was a career he said he loved.

Now 43, Cunningham is assimilating into civilian life. To help with that process, the Austin, Texas resident was in Santa Cruz Friday to participate in Operation Surf, a program for injured veterans run by San Luis Obispo-based Amazing Surf Adventures.

It was to be his first time on a surfboard.

“I’ve been a master in my field,” he said. “Now I’m transitioning to be a civilian, this gives me a chance to see that I can do other things.”

Cunningham was one of about 20 veterans who participated in the program, which was launched 10 years ago.

The program was designed as a way to offer veterans – many with missing limbs and other traumatic injuries – to challenge themselves with a safe but thrilling activity.

For many participants, the program offers their first time leaving the hospital since being injured, according to Operation Surf organizers.

Plunging into the ocean on a surfboard is thought to offer therapeutic benefits, both for veterans looking to heal physical wounds and to quell the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Amanda Curaza, whose husband Van founded the program, researchers have reported a 36 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms, and a 47 percent decrease in depression.

Perhaps more importantly, the program shows a 68 percent increase in “self efficacy,” which is defined as the belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations, she said.

“We owe it to our veterans,” she said. “Our country does a good job in training our troops, but not in helping them come back.”

surf Vets 2

The U.S. Marines Color Guard was on hand to present the flag for the opening ceremony. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Founder Van Curaza said he got into surfing about four decades ago when he was struggling with drug addiction. He started his own surf school for young surfers, based in Avila Beach.

Curaza started working with veterans to thank them for their service, and through that process discovered that both surfers and soldiers thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes from participating in sometimes dangerous activities.

That connection helps build a bond, which in turn helps the veterans feel comfortable enough to share their stories, something that can be difficult with traumatic events.

“It’s an absolute honor to be able to serve and put together such a team to be able to teach them a lifestyle that has not only changed my life but has changed many others before.”

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Editor's Note: This article will publish in the April 19 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.


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