Surf soothing, therapeutic for wounded vets


Surfing last week at La Jolla Shores was a therapeutic experience, not just for disabled vets participating in the second annual National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, but for the volunteers and instructors who shared their experience.

“We’ve got 64 disabled veterans here from all over the country,” said Randi Woodrow, surf coordinator for the event who is chief of physical therapy for the VA of Greater Los Angeles.

She said participating vets’ disabilities varied from spinal cord injuries, blindness and visual impairment to traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress injuries, arm and leg amputations and mental health issues.

The weeklong summer camp program for vets also included kayaking, sailing, cycling and track and field.

Vets in the summer program are paired up with the most appropriate instructors and volunteers, like Hannah Nishimoto, also of the Greater Los Angeles VA, who are specially trained to work with the impaired.

Woodrow and Nishimoto talked about the benefits vets derive from the San Diego summer camp for vets. “In our clinic we do as much physical therapy as we can, and then we take the rehab out of the clinic and bring them back to something they’ve done in the past, adapt them,” said Nishimoto, a Vietnam-era vet.

“A lot of these guys have lost hope,” Woodrow added. “They felt that all activities were out of the picture once they got injured.”

Surfing’s impact on vet Robert Wake from Missouri was evident in his childlike grin following the first wave he ever caught. “Unbelievable,” gasped the Army vet who was injured in 2004 in Iraq when a mortar blew up near him during an ambush breaking his nose, knocking out his front teeth, blowing out one knee and shattering one foot.

“I’ve got a lot of shrapnel in my body and I’m just fortunate that I can be doing something like this,” Wake said. “Water is healing to me. When I get in water, I don’t feel pain. The buoyancy takes all the pain away.”

Surfing was also therapeutic for vet Melissa Trottter of Granite City, Ill., who was injured in a tank accident in Baghdad and just learned to swim two months ago.

“It is very beneficial, I am really enjoying it. It’s challenging,” she said. Is surfing hard? “Not once you put your mind to it and focus,” Trotter answered.

Walking paraplegic vet Russell Noris of Tacoma, Wash., likened surfing to another winter sport with which he is familiar. “To me it kind of comes naturally because I used to snowboard,” he said. “This is a great way to exercise. It’s just awesome to be able to be out here with all these volunteers and fellow vets, just getting together and having a good time.”

Nishimoto said sports therapy like surfing can be life-changing for some of these vets. “They may never go surfing again, but they realize they can do most anything if they can go surfing.”

“I never dreamed I’d be able to do something like this,” Wake said. “I love it. It’s something I want to do from now on. Every opportunity I get, I’m going to go to the coast and surf.”

For more information about the Summer Sports Clinic or to request an application, contact Tristan Heaton at (858) 642-6426.