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Health and Fitness

Point Break

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.

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"I was a surf instructor for guys who were amputees, burn victims, spinal cord injuries, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] - you name it, I was an instructor for them," said Senior Chief Alex West, a former Navy SEAL. "One thing I noticed was the surfboards they were on - very little, if any, were customized to the guys or gals' injuries. I wanted them to be able to get something really customized that were proud to own."

The idea began to flourish after a surf session with an amputee Marine. West noticed that the wounded warrior couldn't contain his smile. When he asked, the Marine told him how surfing makes him feel "normal" again and takes away the pain. At that moment, the SEAL knew he had to take action.

"On the drive home, I swung by a bookstore because I wanted to start a nonprofit for these guys," said West. "I walked in and there's this huge shelf of nonprofit books. All these incredible stories - professors from these great colleges [explaining] how to start a nonprofit and success stories from these huge nonprofits. To be honest, I started to get a little intimidated. I was about to walk out, but I thought to myself, 'I can't just leave.' Then, in the corner of my eye, at the bottom of the bookshelf was this yellow book. It was 'How to Start a Nonprofit for Dummies.' That night, I sat down with a highlighter and a coffee and the rest is history."

West went on to create One More Wave. The company's mission is to "provide wounded or disabled veterans access to surfing by providing them with customized surfing equipment and assistance." One More Wave also allows veterans to customize their surfboards from scratch. Everything from the color and the board length to the placement of the fins and graphics can be personalized.

"We started with nothing," said West. "It took us awhile just to get the paperwork filled out. It took even longer to get our first board. ... It was for a guy named Chris - he made the pattern of the board look like his service dog, who looks kind of like a cow. He got to go in there with the surfboard company and actually help design it. Once he had it, I knew that was a world-class surfboard. I knew there was something special there and haven't looked back since."

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Luckily, for West, he was not alone. He had some help from a fellow SEAL.

"I got a call from one of my guys," said Senior Chief Kyle Buckett, also an outgoing SEAL. "Their helicopter had taken some heavy rounds. One of my guys had gotten shot up pretty good. A day or two goes by and I get another call. They say, 'Hey, they're going to take his leg.' About year before this, he had just shown up to the [Navy SEAL] team. I [had] been surfing and I had seen him surfing. Come to find out he was a semi-professional surfer before he joined the Navy.

"So when I found out he got shot, selfishly, I start thinking about myself, 'What would I do if that happened to me, if, in a single instant, my form of recreational therapy - surfing - was completely taken away from me?' So I started researching ways that I could help. Then I found out another Navy SEAL, Alex, was starting this program called One More Wave."

Although the SEAL teams are a tight-knit community, Buckett and West didn't know each other. Eventually, the two met and Buckett insisted on helping him grow the nonprofit. From there, One More Wave began changing lives.

"This isn't just a good deed to [Bucket and West]," said Counihan. "This is a brotherhood. A lot of us, when we get out of the military, we lose our comradery. These guys have gone above and beyond my expectations of what a veteran brother actually is. They're awesome - there's no other way to put it. They're some of the most rad humans I ever met in my life."