Sea Change

Wounded vets catch waves with Operation Amped

by Benjamin Marcus | Updated 13 Aug 2015 at 6:44 AM

When surfers speak of “stoke” they are not just engaging in Spicoli surfer speak. Surfing, done right, delivers a tremendous psychological high.

Paddling hard in the ocean, catching waves, riding waves, and plunging into an environment can be as dangerous as it is thrilling: People who start surfing learn that “stoke” is an overall feeling of physical and mental cleanliness that can lead to a lifetime obsession with riding waves in the ocean.

For veterans returning home from foreign wars with physical and mental injuries, that stoked stimulation can mean the difference between elation and depression, and even between a good life and a tragic death.

According to the Wounded Warrior Project, as of July 1, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had wounded 52,343, with an estimated 320,000 suffering from traumatic brain injuries and 400,000 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

These veterans all require care and rehabilitation, and the Veterans Administration is aided by private organizations like Operation Amped, a group of veterans, surfers, medical professionals and volunteers whose mission is:

"To share the 'stoke' of the surfing community and the healing potential of surfing with seriously ill, injured, or disabled U.S. military veterans and their families. Our vision is of a surfing community that demonstrates appreciation for the sacrifices of servicemen and women with its welcoming environment and sharing the grounding and healing of surfing.”

"Seeing the pure joy when a warrior catches his or her first wave, knowing we’ve made a small positive difference in a warrior’s life and taking their minds off of their struggles for a short time.”

Operation Amped was founded in 2005 by Tom Tapp, Dave Donaldson, and Joseph Gabunilas with material support from Jim Kempton, who was working for Billabong clothing. The first Operation Amped surfing clinics were held in 2006. In the decade since, they have introduced hundreds of veterans to the secrets of the sea, as far west as the Hawaiian Islands, as far north as Zuma Beach, California, as far south as South Padre Island, Texas, and as far east as New Jersey, and all the way to England, in collaboration with other veteran charities. These efforts were rewarded with one of surfing's highest honors: the Agent of Change award by Surfer Magazine

Operation Amped has established its beachhead, but Dave Donaldson wants the reach to extend farther.

“As the veteran population has moved back home, often inland, we are currently figuring out how to reach out (or in) by providing flat water SUP instruction on Lakes and rivers near VA facilities in addition to the programs we already provide,” Donaldson said.

Joseph Gabunilas has ascended from volunteer to president of the board of directors of Operation Amped.

“Being an avid surfer for over 42 years, I know firsthand the therapeutic properties of surfing,"Gabunilas said. "Operation Amped is our way of giving back to those brave men and women who have sacrificed, served and continue to serve their country. Seeing the pure joy, excitement and sense of living when a warrior catches his or her first wave, knowing we’ve made a small positive difference in a warrior’s life and taking their minds off of their injures, mental/social and family struggles for a short time.”

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