After 24 years as a combat engineer and demolition specialist, Gordon ‘Gordy’ Ewell left the Army as a master sergeant with no hearing and minimal eyesight after suffering six IED explosions. And yet, despite the loss of his senses, Ewell’s most lasting injuries were mental: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all of the life-changing symptoms that come along with it. Then he discovered Operation Surf (OS), a nonprofit based in California offering veterans healing amongst the ocean waves.
Under the watchful eye of Operation Surf founder Van Cureza — an ex-drug addict who found peace in big wave surfing, Ewell found a sense of calm, renewed purpose and self-efficacy.
Over its 14-year history, the nonprofit has helped thousands of veterans, each in unique ways, but together the statistics paint a compelling picture. After one week of surfing — the standard length of an OS program — participants showed a 36% decrease in PTSD symptoms, an even more significant reduction in depression and a 68% increase in self-efficacy (‘belief in completing goals and tasks’), according to a 2016 study.
Payton Wright was born in Illinois but took up surfing when she moved to California and began connecting veterans with OS four years ago. Wright serves as the program’s communication manager. Every week she witnesses the ‘perfect storm of quick healing’ that is an OS program; like a perfect storm, she said there are many factors behind the operation’s success.
“It’s a little bit of a jigsaw of different things, but really what produces change is professional surf instruction and a sense of community,” Wright said.
Bert, an Army veteran and participant who wanted only his first name shared, came to OS in 2021 struggling with ‘intense suicidal thoughts’ after a tour of active duty.
Bert reflected more on the human connections he made through the program than the actual surfing itself.
“Through my defeat and desperation, I was surrounded, not by judgment and criticism for my shortcomings and physical limitations, but by grace, compassion and love,” he said.
When presented with a photo of himself from his week with OS, supported by an instructor, Bert felt the memento “embraces everything that OS strives to do; surround veterans with respite, grace, mercy, compassion, hope and love, unconditionally.”
Now an alumnus of the program, he returned to Operation Surf this year as part of its Veteran Support team.
Wright recalled another veteran who “hadn’t seen the ocean in 12 years[…]. Sitting on the porch staring at the ocean was more healing than the surfing, just being ‘blue mind‘ and near the water.”
That observation is supported by perhaps some of the most striking research into ocean therapy in recent years: negative ion exposure.
The Lenard effect describes when shearing or colliding water generates negative air ions (NAIs), most commonly at waterfalls but also repeatedly crashing waves or white water rapids. More and more recent studies since the 2000s have indicated exposure to NAIs has a measurable impact on chronic depression, among other mental and physical health benefits.
It’s just one more piece of the water-therapy jigsaw. In 2018, psychologists at UC Berkeley took 84 veterans white-water rafting on California’s American River and down the Green River in Utah. For Craig Anderson, who led the study, their findings were simple: ‘awe in nature heals.’ Participants were happier, conducted healthier social relationships, and, most significantly, returned ‘on average, a 29% reduction in PTSD symptoms.’
OS is now one of almost 50 programs harnessing surf therapy internationally. But Wright thinks what they’re accomplishing at OS is especially unique.
“[We’re] helping veterans struggling specifically with not being able to share their story […] feeling that they’re alone,” she said.
Wright explained how the program plants a ‘seed of healing’ among its veterans and their loved ones.
“It’s really cool to see how that plays out in the rest of their lives.”
Operation Surf is a free, all-inclusive program for veterans and is made possible by donations, sponsorship and volunteers. For more information, visit https://operationsurf.org/.