If you’ve ever surfed — or even just sat on a surfboard in the water — you know that sense of peace you feel when you’re looking out at the horizon. It’s only you, your board, and the water. All your worries are crashing on the shore while you remain in the water, soaking up all its beauty.
That’s exactly what Van Curaza feels when he’s riding the waves and thus what started his mission at Operation Surf, a non-profit organization that supports the idea that surfing promotes healing through nature-based therapy. Curaza struggled with addiction for a good portion of his life, but it was his love for surfing that kept him going each day, even though he had turned to drugs and alcohol. It was when Curaza got clean and started a surf school full time that he realized how impactful surfing can be to people.
But why is there a need for this in veterans who have served their country? Because there is more to it than what meets the eye. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Most veterans who return home after serving experience different forms of mental injuries on top of the physical injuries they might have suffered. One of the major illnesses that can be formed is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and can have a lasting detrimental impact. PTSD, along with suicide rates, have been so prominent that it has been classified as a National Health Crisis by the VA and CDC.
According to Operation Surf’s website, one out of every three veterans is diagnosed with PTSD and 22 veterans commit suicide every day while less than 40 percent actually seek help. To combat these unfortunate statistics, Curaza formed his organization to channel the healing effect the ocean has to give our veterans hope and a purpose, and that’s exactly what it’s been doing.
Dr. Russell Crawford examined Operation Surf and went on to write a book that suggests surf therapy as an alternative form of therapy to treat veterans with PTSD that is more nature-based rather than using pharmaceuticals. In his research, Crawford noted that through Operation Surf, there has been a 36 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms, a 47 percent decrease in depression, and a 68 percent increase in self-efficacy.
Beyond the recognition through Crawford’s research-based book, Operation Surf was also featured in the Netflix Documentary Resurface, which follows veteran Bobby Lane, who was struggling with thoughts of suicide and how surfing saved his life. While the documentary pays tribute to other veterans who were injured in the line of duty, Lane’s story is one of those stories that hits a little deeper.
Lane always knew he wanted to serve his country and eventually, he became a Marine. While serving in Iraq, Lane’s platoon was attacked by five different roadside bombs in the span of 11 days, and he was exposed to and suffered injuries from every bombing. Lane’s dedication to his corp and his country never faltered, however, and it was what drove him to remove all the shrapnel in his body himself so he would not be sent home.
Struggling with TBIs and seizures after returning home, Lane had felt like he lost all purpose in life. Between the medications and alcohol just to get him through the day, Lane was ready for all of it, including his life, to end. However the day he caught his first wave was the day, according to Lane in Resurface,
“the Bobby you’re talking to now came alive.”
Program manager Justin Martinez came to the organization in May 2022 and said it gave him the opportunity to talk about his personal struggles. Martinez retired from the military in 2016 after 20 years of service, and the years that followed, he kept his struggles to himself, not once publicly speaking about what he went through during his service. All that changed when Martinez joined Operation Surf.
"I didn't think that talking about something was going to be able to release all the struggles," Martinez said. "Operation Surf gives that platform for the veterans to learn a new skill and get all the healing properties of the ocean sitting out there. Whether you're sitting there with the quietness of the ocean or with your brothers and sisters in arms, you're able to just kind of focus on yourself."
Surfing isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a step in the right direction — giving veterans and active military members a renewed purpose in life. As Operation Surf puts it,
“By staying true to our core values of care, inclusion, commitment, integrity, and communication; we change participants’ lives – one wave at a time.”
Photo credit: courtesy of Operation Surf’s Instagram