To her surprise, Terri Jeffcoat caught several waves in her first surfing experience.
“I’m only as good as my coaches,” says the Air Force veteran and VA patient, who participated in the third annual Waves of Valor Surf Camp at Huntington Beach, Calif. – aka Surf City USA – in September. The event was organized by Team Red, White & Blue (RWB), the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and local American Legion members, along with community supporters.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You’ll never be able to surf; you’re too lame,’” Jeffcoat says. “A good friend of mine said, ‘I see you walk. You’re not going to surf.’ Then I met Chris Merkle at the VA and he said, ‘Come on out to surf camp. Let’s see.’ I’ll never again listen to anyone tell me I can’t do something.”
Merkle is a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and commander of American Legion Post 455 in Costa Mesa. He’s also president of Team RWB’s Orange County chapter and the driving force behind Waves of Valor.
“Team RWB was looking for a way to partner with VA to use physical and social activity in a way that would engage veterans and help them transition,” he says. “We started in Malibu as a veteran-to-veteran peer-mentoring model. It was more of providing an experience. The second year we made it a little bigger, inviting more people. The vet-to-vet model was great, but getting the community involved really helped make that transition piece happen.”
The Los Angeles VA supports four surfing sessions every summer, two in Los Angeles and two in Orange County. Team RWB is efficient on the logistics side, running the events with only a few volunteers. Twenty to 30 veterans participate, and depending on the event’s size, a hundred or more members of the community might show up to help. They do everything from coaching patients to handling registration and retrieving surfboards.
“We purposely made (the surf camp) volunteer-intensive because we wanted heavy interaction with the community,” Merkle says. “People want to give back in a meaningful way, and their time is the most precious thing to ask. When somebody comes out and physically donates of themselves, that shows a huge commitment to our veteran population. We are trying to marry that with helping the vet transition and meet people in the community.”
VA occupational therapists select surf camp participants, who are medically cleared beforehand. If there are limitations, an occupational therapist may be present to ensure the veteran operates within his or her capability.
Each veteran is surrounded by a small group of people giving him or her instruction on how to surf. There are 20 other veterans in the water. For a while, they’re not thinking about whatever is going on with them physically or mentally. With a little coaching from their new friends, they just want to catch some waves.
“When they finally do, it’s an amazing feeling,” Merkle says. “When you’re flying across that water, it doesn’t matter if anything is wrong with you. In that moment, you are free.”
The biggest struggle, though – even throughout the different veterans organizations – is the issue of how to actually reach veterans. In each, there is a core group that carries the load, Merkle says.
“We have all these great ideas and programs, but how do we reach the guys who need it? I want to bring the skills I’m learning with these post-9/11 groups to the Legion, because it is doing a good job of reaching out. And I want to encourage other veterans who have made a successful transition to help another do the same.
“People say the military needs to do a better job of transitioning veterans out, but that’s not the military’s job. The military’s job is to fight wars. The transition is up to veterans and the community around them.”
Michael Hjelmstad is a Marine Corps veteran, writer, film producer and member of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, Calif.