Wounded warriors ride a surfboard’s nose, and it smells like…victory
It had taken Aaron Kumamoto five years to work his way back from Iraq’s desert sand to Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz. The California sand — like life itself — is so soft that you could hardly tell he was limping as he emerged from the Pacific, wielding his surfboard like a trident. He was home, at last.
A friend had tried to teach him to surf at the same beach when Kumamoto was a teenager, but he was in a hurry for something much bigger than the next set of waves, and enlisted in the Army. “I’m doing better out here now than I did when I was in high school,” he said, his face bright as a sunbeam as he sat in his non-camo-green wetsuit.
It was the uniform of the day for eight active duty soldiers — among them Kumamoto, now 25 — storming the beach as part of Operation Surf, a week of radical rehab for some of America’s wounded warriors. All of them are currently based at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, where they are outpatients — extremely out this week as they heroically hang five off the Santa Cruz pier, their gnarled limbs getting their first taste of gnarly rides. A few, like Stephen Peterson, were actually hanging none, or at least no toes, over the surfboard’s nose. Peterson steadied his longboard on the lip of a wave Tuesday morning and hoisted himself into a headstand.
Operation Surf has only one mission: To give wounded war heroes a place they can get better, a reason to want that, and to remind them in the process that their sacrifice is appreciated. “We complain about everyday stuff that’s just so stupid. Like, ‘Oh my God, there’s traffic!’ ” said Darryl “Flea” Virostko, a local surfing legend who was thrilled to be teaching the soldiers how to ride the Santa Cruz waves. “These guys are just stoked to be alive.”
Kumamoto laced up a gym shoe on his right foot, then raised his other leg and let the water pour out of a hollow place in the prosthetic foot he had been given just two weeks ago. His left leg, mutilated five years ago in Iraq, was finally amputated six inches below the knee in February. A sergeant, Kumamoto had been assigned to lead a resupply detail to a forward operating base in 2007, when the Humvee he was riding in was blown apart by a roadside bomb.
His arm was broken in the explosion, and both legs were shredded. Kumamoto was airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany until his condition stabilized, then he was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where he was chosen for the “limb salvage” program — undergoing years of pain, heavy medication and braces as doctors attempted to save his leg. He’s lost track of how many operations he endured, but reckons it was 25 to 40. When the leg was removed, he said, it was a relief. He could finally get on with his life. The first step in that process — surfing.
“They’ve lost a lot. And not only limbs,” said Janis Roznowski, whose volunteer work with the wounded at Brooke Medical Center led her to start a nonprofit named Operation Comfort, which eventually led to Operation Surf. “They’ve lost their innocence, they’ve lost their friends, they’ve seen and had to do things that they never should have had to do.”
This year, there were seven men and one woman in the dogface dogpaddle, all of them amputees, and many dealing with other, less obvious, problems. “Being so recently wounded, they kind of lose that sense of, ‘I was a soldier, and a complete badass,’ ” said Amanda Kline of Amazing Surf Adventures, the surfing school in San Luis Obispo that provided instructors. “When we get them out here, doing what everybody else does, and doing it perfectly, they get that sense of ‘I’m a badass’ again.”
Ashley Jones, a 21-year-old Army specialist from Tulsa, Okla., was a medic attached to an infantry unit in eastern Afghanistan a week before last Christmas, when an IED went off underneath the seat of her vehicle. The explosion fractured her back in two places, and ripped off most of her right foot, which had to be amputated. She was walking between parallel bars within days of getting her stitches out, and despite pain caused by new bone growth that will require another operation, she spent this week ecstatically riding the waves.
Like many of her fellow surfers, dealing with the emotional aftermath of her injury was harder than the physical rehab. “I think that’s the hardest part,” Jones said. “You’re never going to be the same again. But doing something like this really boosts your confidence. Everything going on in your head, it just goes away. It’s a blast.”
Many of the wounded struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “One guy said he hadn’t slept a wink and had nightmares since his legs were blown off and his best friend died, all in the space of two seconds,” said Neil Pearlberg, one of the volunteer instructors. “I asked him what was different after he came here. He said, ‘All I think about now when I go to sleep is surfing.’ ”
The event, which continues with morning and afternoon sessions through Saturday, attracted top wave riders such as Jason “Ratboy” Collins, and “Flea” Virostko, whose father was an Army Ranger in Vietnam. He acknowledges that even as a freewheeling surfer dude, he grew up with a profound respect for a soldier’s sacrifice.
“One guy was doing headstands out there,” said Virostko. “Some are missing legs, some arms. Everyone can do different things because their bodies are different.”
The soldiers may have left pieces of themselves behind on the battlefield, but they have lost none of their toughness, and they refused to be babied. Van Curaza, who helped set up Operation Surf, told the instructors to confront their physical challenges head on. “And by the end of the week, they’re just lit up,” he said. “When they ride that wave, they are badass.”
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.
HOW to help
To help defray Operation Surf’s costs, go to www.operationsurf.com/support.html.