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Health and Fitness

Finding Relief and Peace in the Water

Navy Veteran turns to surfing to relieve pain

Waking before the sun to catch a wave is the best feeling, according to surfers. They say there is nothing better than cool, soft sand between your toes, especially before the daily mob of people arrives to sun bathe. The sweet smell of the ocean and the harmony of the waves can make time stand still. While this remains a dream for most people, or at most a pleasure to be indulged in once or twice a year, it is a regular reality for medically retired Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Nate Hamilton.

Like many veterans who have been injured in combat zones, Hamilton continued to suffer after he returned home. Indeed, wounded warriors can carry their injuries, thoughts, feelings and memories of the front lines back with them to the home front. Some don't have an outlet to cope with their emotions, which can lead to depression, according to experts. Hamilton found his outlet in the water.

He enlisted in the Navy in 2007. While in boot camp, the only job he dreamed of was becoming a fleet marine force (FMF) corpsman. He had to fight to make that dream a reality. So he felt like fate was smiling down on him when he received orders to report to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he attended an eight-week field medical service course and qualified as an FMF corpsman.

I actually went into the recruiter wanting to be a FMF corpsman," said Hamilton. "I felt I could make more of a difference there, felt like that was my calling."

Hamilton deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, assigned to a Marine Corps infantry unit. While he was on patrol, a vehicle ran over an improvised-explosive device (IED). The explosion sent shrapnel and fire in all directions. Hamilton suffered numerous injuries throughout his whole body, but that wasn't his concern. His training kicked in and, ignoring his own injuries, he started pulling Marines out of the damaged truck.

"I've been involved in quite a few incidents," said Hamilton. "The one that got me was I was actually on foot next to a vehicle that ran over an IED. The guys that were in that convoy thought I was a pink mist, and somehow I came out of that dust cloud and pulled the guys out of the vehicle."

Hamilton was medically evacuated to Camp Boston, a British military base in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with a severe concussion, a ruptured tympanic membrane (the membrane between the outer and middle ear), hearing damage, spinal fractures and a frayed spinal cord. In November 2013, he was medically retired from the Navy. Compounding his ongoing challenges, which include using leg braces to walk, he soon found that his pain medication changed him mentally.

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"I was on a lot of medicine back in the day and decided one day to stop it," said Hamilton. "According to my family, I wasn't the same person. I started to get in the water and I don't need to take medicine; it's one of those self-healing things."

Water helped him both physically and mentally, so Hamilton started to spend quite a bit of time in his newfound refuge. He started out paddle boarding, then found a new sport that further eased his pain. In early 2016, volunteers from One More Wave, a non-profit organization based in San Diego that provides adaptive surfing equipment and instruction to disabled veterans, taught Hamilton how to surf.

"They can help guys with, show them to, expose them to and get them stoked on different ways of surfing, so they can get in the water however they can the best way they can," said Joseph Jackson, a surfer and volunteer for One More Wave. "They specialize in the equipment and have a passion in developing and advancing equipment, and getting guys what they want to be able to use and to have the most fun and get the most stoke on."

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"I started surfing March of 2016," said Hamilton. "I've never surfed a wave in my life and we found out that I couldn't pop up and get my legs underneath me. Come full circle, a year later I get hooked up with these guys at One More Wave. They asked me to go to learn how to surf and I was kind of iffy about it because I was worried about, 'How am I going to swim out?' and 'How am I going to do this?' Then you go out there [and] even when you are just taking your board out, you don't care."

Even though Hamilton recently picked up surfing, he is a quick learner and determined to get better. His eagerness to be out on the water with his board shows his unwavering grit, said his friends and the guys at One More Wave.

"Nate is a very unique surfer; he is the type of guy that if I'm not there to push him around, he is still surfing," said Jackson. "He is still out there. He doesn't necessarily have to have me in the water right next to [him], me pushing him in the waves, or me catching him in waves. He can realistically do it independently because he has the stroke and the will to get out there and put the time in and just develop that water time and repertoire, what I call, 'feeling for the water.'"

Hamilton has many reasons to be out on the water, taking any wave he can get: The ocean clears his head, brings him back down to earth and relieves his pain.

When you are on that wave, the pain goes away; the thoughts go away," said Hamilton. "You are just in that moment. You just think about that wave. You don't think about all the stuff you have to do, the medicine you have to take. It just goes away."