For a week, Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, the Central Coast played host to 30 surfers, most of whom aren’t normally a part of the local scene. With 15 new participants and 15 returning alumni of the Avila-based Operation Surf program, along with a cast of instructors and support staff, some of the choicest spots on the Central Coast were packed as long as the swell was up.
Despite the numbers, what brought most of the participating veterans to the event was a sense of calm and a certain solitude to be found on the water.
“Surfing is just different,” said Leonardio Yui, a veteran of the U.S. Navy with four warzone deployments during his 14 years of service. “You can’t control the Ocean. You have to allow it to be in control and just follow your instincts.”
Yui, who goes by Leo, added that he’s tried a variety of treatment programs for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which included elements from equine therapy to skydiving, without finding the simple clarity and camaraderie as he did sharing the surf with other vets.
Having participated in the program once in Huntington Beach, he flew out again from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, to lend his support as an alumnus.
“What I call my, ‘life switch,’ flipped on,” he said, “as soon as I saw some of the same faces. I was smiling the whole time.”
That’s the gift of the program said Operation Surf’s Director of Rana herself became involved in the program after her husband Brian took part in a more intensive six-month option available to Central Coast residents.
“It’s not all about PTSD, but that is a huge part of what these guys have in common,” she said, “It’s been estimated that one in three combat vets are affected [by PTSD] and less than 40 percent of those seek help.”
Surfing focuses you in the moment, where the only thing you can control is your attitude about what you’re doing and the next action you take, she added.
She also points to a study commissioned on 200 of Operation Surf’s 600 past participants which showed a 36 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms, 47 percent decrease in depression and a 68 percent increase in self-efficacy [a metric of an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments]. From an evening phone call across time zones after he returned from the event, it sounded like Yui was quite aware of the self- efficacy metric.
But, in listing the things he found valuable about his time with the program, it was evident how unconcerned the general public can sometimes be about people in his position.
“There are things I can only talk about with a vet who has similar experiences, not just any vet,” he said. “When you tell somebody you have PTSD, people think you’re crazy, just a crazy vet. But that’s not the case at all. We’re just people dealing with something.”
One of the things that made him happiest coming on this trip was that he was able to, “Share his stoke,” with three other vets who he’d encouraged to sign up.
While they got to ride the waves at Morro Rock and Avila Beach, he singled out the “magical” elements of their visit to Hollister Ranch where the water was crystal clear and leopard sharks hung out below the waves.
“It’s strange you know because sharks were there, but I felt no fear at all. With everyone there, I just felt safe. There’s no answer for why,” he said.
However, from experience, he does know, “that’s not a feeling any pill can give you.”
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Operation Surf, founded by local Van Curaza with a host of local surf instructors making up a volunteer base. The specifics of their week-long program, of which the September – October event was an example, are given cinematic flair in a new Netflix Documentary Resurface now available on the streaming platform. The next event is in the works for April 2020 in Santa Cruz. For more information go online to: operationsurf.org/ programs.
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.