Giving veterans hope through surfing
It was like any other day in Afghanistan for Sgt. Tommy Counihan, an Army combat engineer. Seven months into his deployment, he was accustomed to the dangers of his job clearing improvised-explosive devices (IEDs). In fact, he had already finished his mission for the day and was ready for some much-needed rest. Suddenly, as he returned to his forward-operating base, his vehicle launched into the air.
"I just remember thinking it was kind of like a rollercoaster ride," recalled Counihan. "I was one of the few people in my unit that [had] yet to experience actually being in an IED blast. Unfortunately, it just so happened that my first one was one of the worst one of our entire deployment."
Counihan realized his right leg was severely injured. The explosion would end up costing him the limb. He also lost the ability to do some of the things he was most passionate about like skateboarding, swimming and, most importantly, surfing. He began spiraling down a long road of depression. He even contemplated suicide.
Then, he found hope.
"I found out about an opportunity to go surfing in California," said Counihan. "When I got there, I was really stoked; I could feel the vibes when I got there, and I was trying to put off the bad thoughts. So, very first wave, I start paddling into it and I just hear from behind me, 'Pop up.' I got up, on the first try. I was standing on a surfboard again. That feeling came back from the very first time and it just washed away all this pain and anguish that I was holding. In that moment, it was like a flipping of a switch - there is no more 'I can't.'"
Counihan is just one of many wounded warriors who have experienced the therapeutic power of surfing. Organizations like Access Surf have made it their mission to spread the benefits of the sport by helping teach injured veterans how to surf. One volunteer instructor took it a step further, forming his own nonprofit company that builds custom surfboards for injured service members.