If you love the ocean, you know the feeling of being submerged and feeling small and somehow quieted. In a world of constant connectivity, soaking in the salt makes us feel human again. For veterans returning from war, the basic elements of life — emotions, finances, responsibilities, family, self-care — can be an overwhelming challenge. After witnessing death, constant danger, instability, and serious bodily harm, returning to normal life is often impossible. But not with help. Enter Charleston, SC’s, Warrior Surf Foundation, formed in 2015 by three surfers: combat veterans Andy Manzi and Tyler Crowder and former pro surfer/Charleston Surf Lessons owner Josh Wilson. WSF’s goal is to bring the healing power of ocean therapy to veterans whose lives, minds, and often bodies have been torn apart by war.
Manzi served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, only to return home to debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder. After struggling to find his way for several years, Andy discovered surfing and was instantly hooked. Josh Wilson gave Andy a chance when he first came to Charleston in 2012. “Andy had a huge heart and a love for the sport, but struggled daily with his own issues,” Wilson says. “By getting in the water, doing what he loved, and helping others, surfing slowly changed him. It’s a selfless act when you’re coaching — you get to see someone else get the reward.” Over a 15-month period, Andy gained the strength to finally seek out professional help to process his difficult wartime memories, after which his symptoms quickly began to abate. Andy’s story became public in early 2015, and both he and Wilson say the response was overwhelming.
Tyler Crowder and his wife, Sarah Ann, are both veteran Army medics who met while training in Fort Sam Houston. Tyler completed five deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw what he describes as “horrible” things. “When I signed up to be a medic, I knew I had to be prepared to see the worst of the worst,” Crowder says. “You have your hands deep in really bad wounds. I saw things on a regular basis that most people could never handle.” After each deployment, Tyler, who grew up in Wrightsville Beach, NC, would surf to relieve his stress. In 2011, Crowder was medically discharged with a broken back and experienced firsthand the frustrations of navigating the VA for help. That led him and his wife to look for ways to start a program to help other veterans enjoy the outdoors. Everything came together when Josh Wilson introduced Tyler to Andy. The two veterans exchanged stories and found that the same VA researcher had been tracking their progress with surfing as a method of healing from PTSD. They put their heads together and Warrior Surf Foundation was born.
Wilson, who’s been surfing for 33 years with 13 of those spent bouncing between coaching and the professional circuit, says he’s drawn to folks with disabilities and likes using surfing as a way to bring struggling people back to life. Josh has a knack for spotting folks who’ve maybe been kicked around by life and need a little help. “It’s the idea of fighting an obstacle,” Wilson says, “whether medical or mental. I’ve overcome my own obstacles with addiction. I was on top of the world as a pro surfer and made some bad choices and found myself on the streets and homeless. Someone gave me a helping hand, and I want to help others. There’s nothing more powerful than seeing someone overcome a mental or physical ailment. There’s power in the water. When someone does something they normally wouldn’t do, letting their pride and ego down to see how much fun it is, surfing can become a new addiction.”
Which is exactly what Andy, Tyler, and Josh have done for veterans suffering from PTSD. I spoke with one anonymous female veteran at the first surf Warrior Surf Foundation clinic; we’ll call her Beth. Beth is still haunted by the difficult memories from two tours in the Middle East. Returning from war, she explains, “The only emotions I could feel were rage and nothing. It feels like I’m a shell and life is just passing me by. [PTSD] affects every aspect of my life with my family. I don’t sleep, I don’t have friends... I got so used to uncertainty and [feeling] unsafe.”
Like so many veterans who return from war with PTSD, Beth felt like leading a normal life was impossible. Searching for an outlet for her children, she contacted Charleston Surf Lessons — and then decided to try surfing for herself. She now takes lessons six days a week and has learned to open up. “It feels like voyeurism when people ask me about the details [of my difficult memories],” Beth says, tensing up. “A month ago, even considering talking about them was not on the radar.” But after Beth found surfing, her perspective changed. “I got my ass kicked, in a good way, the first few times,” she says. “I began surfing, but I also began to open up to a few safe people.”
What is it about surfing that can have such a positive effect on people with disabilities? Science actually backs what surfers instinctively know to be true: surfing heals. Several components can alter a person’s mental state: 1) The movement of the water creates negative ions, which are scientifically and medically proven to positively change a person’s mental state. 2) The challenge of crashing waves, which mimics the challenges of battle, but with a soothing effect. As Josh Izenberg, director of the film Resurface, describes, “The ocean itself has the cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions by putting them in a context of something much bigger and more powerful than someone’s individual life existence.” 3) Setting goals and accomplishing those goals and experiencing “flow” while “in the zone.” 4) The rhythmic movement of water can soothe the overstimulated nervous system. 5) Physical exertion leads to healthy exhaustion, which can aid better sleep for PTSD sufferers.
Charleston social worker Erin Jones has treated PTSD, depression, and anxiety for six years with the VA. Jones plans on offering counseling services based upon “flow therapy” and “adventure therapy,” combining surf lessons with counseling services when veterans are ready for it. Therapy sessions will be conducted on the beach, by the water, and away from any clinical setting. Warrior Surf Foundation has also partnered with Palmetto Warrior Connection, a regional nonprofit that offers free services to veterans.
For Josh Wilson, Andy Manzi, and Tyler Crowder, surfing is simply the entry point for offering help to those veterans. Providing someone who is struggling with a dose of fun and freedom opens the door — to counseling, medical help, and addressing practical, physical needs as the whole person begins to heal. As Tyler Crowder puts it, “We all have different stories, but the same goal: to get better. We are veterans who want to provide a place for veterans to hang out. We are a big family.”