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Surf therapy: Life-changing experience

Matthew Doyle grew up by the beach in Santa Monica, California, and with his slim physique and tattooed forearms, looks as if he’s been surfing his whole life.

But it took three tours of duty half a world away, many sleepless nights, and meeting a woman named Carly before the 26-year-old U.S. Army veteran braved the waves on a surfboard.

On a recent Saturday, I met Doyle and a group of 11 other young military veterans trying to overcome the horrors of war at Manhattan Beach, just south of Los Angeles, where occupational therapist Carly Rogers led them in a surf therapy class.

With the exhilarating goal of riding down the face of the wave, the constant paddling out through the whitewater and occasional wipeouts, the motion of the ocean is helping former soldiers, sailors and Marines return to normal.

“I fell in love with it as soon as I got in the water,” Doyle said. “After I came back from Iraq, I lost interest in the things I used to do, and I lost a lot of friends from being gone so long. And I never really had a reason to go outside. But now every day I just want to surf.”

Rogers figures she’s worked with at least 400 war vets since she started the program with the Jimmy Miller Foundation four years ago to deal with the growing number of service members returning from war with wounds that weren’t visible.

“I had this dream of healing people with the ocean,” she says.

Surfing helped her deal with the death of her mother in 1994, when she was 18 and working as a lifeguard. As a graduate student, she had designed a surf therapy program to work with kids. The program only existed in a manual until her friend and fellow lifeguard, Jimmy Miller, took his own life. Miller’s brother said they had to make the program a reality.

In 2005, they launched the foundation and began working with children at risk of mental illness, which Miller suffered from. The program was expanded after a foundation board member said they should help wounded and emotionally scarred troops returning from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“At that time I had no previous experience with the military, and I was actually like ‘Whoa, I don’t think so,’” Rogers says.

Many of those in the program suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms include substance abuse, insomnia, isolation, lack of confidence and anger.

Marines at Camp Pendleton showed up at the first class in their camouflage fatigues and combat boots. They were withdrawn and had little expression.

“Slowly those things came off,” she said. “Once again we were all surfers on the beach. And it gives me the chills talking about it right now – it just changed my life. … After one day of surfing they were smiling and laughing, telling jokes, high-fiving.”

Rogers used the experience to earn her occupational therapy doctorate, working at the Veterans Administration to research how surfing helps veterans with PTSD.

Doyle, who was knocked unconscious by an IED explosion and got a concussion and six stitches in his forehead, is coping with PTSD after two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

“The first year I was deployed didn’t really affect me. It was more shellshock – you don’t really understand what you’ve gone through. And by the time I got a chance to think about it, I was already deployed again.”

Nearly 50 percent of the veterans don’t show up for mental health appointments at the VA, Rogers said. Turnout is much better at surf school.

The group meets five consecutive Saturdays. She starts each day with an informal discussion, circling the troops and her cadre of volunteers at the start of the session.

Beach volleyball players kick up sand nearby and dolphins leap just beyond the surf break as Rogers coaxes them to talk about their experiences and their progress.

Then, wearing full wetsuits and each with a volunteer instructor, they hit the surf for a couple of hours. They have to bust through the incoming surf, paddle to catch a wave and then try to stand up.

I attached a GoPro HD camera in waterproof housing to the front of Doyle’s surfboard and it caught all the frustration and fun. I had shot video with the camera before, but Reuters photographer Denis Balibouse in Switzerland gave me the idea to use it as a still camera. I set it to shoot every two seconds, and Doyle waded into the ocean with the GoPro attached to his board.

He wore a smile as waves surged toward his face and then floated on the board waiting for the right break. He clambered onto the board and stood for a few brief rides before tumbling into the sea. More smiles.

Perhaps the biggest benefit came that night. After years of sleepless nights from combat stress, Doyle was finally able to sleep.

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