On Sunday, June 3rd, a motorcade could be seen trailing a Hummer limo that carried 26 veterans and active duty military through downtown Huntington Beach. Locals lined the streets waving mini-American flags and cheering for those joining Surf City’s week-long annual “Operation Surf” program, which is dedicated to exposing veterans and active-duty military to the healing power of the ocean through adaptive surfing. The program helps participants work towards overcoming perceived limitations connected to their physical and psychological disabilities.
For one week, Huntington Beach Pier’s Northside was packed with anything but grumpy locals. In fact, most of these locals were smiling, cheering and pushing folks into waves.
“The ocean has a healing aspect to it and when we work together as team to learn to surf, we create new reference points that help us change our perceived challenges,” said Danny Nichols, Huntington Beach Event Director. “It also teaches us that we are not different. Yes, we may have certain physical or mental challenges, but we are all in this together and knowing that creates harmony and trust within this group.”
Military often experience traumatic body and brain injuries, which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD is developed after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. One in three combat troops report symptoms of PTSD.
In recent years, “surf therapy” has been studied as a way to relieve symptoms of PTSD. In the book “Blue Mind,” author Wallace J. Nichols’, Ph.D., explores the effects of water on the human psyche. In a not-so-recent article, Dr. Nichols highlights that unlike a busy city street, because of nature’s high predictability, it allows parts of the brain to “relax.” The movement of bodies of water (a.k.a.: waves), causes a “surprised” feeling, which leads to the release of dopamine, the coveted ‘reward-pleasure’ neurotransmitter we often receive when we score a great wave.
Dr. Nichols says that because bodies of water change and stay the same simultaneously, people experience both soothing familiarity and stimulation or the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention, a key characteristic of problem solving and creativity.
On Friday, June 8th, I got the opportunity to volunteer with Operation Surf, to help with inshore safety by assisting veterans in and out of the water. Some folks were old pros at catching waves and others were still learning to cruise the whitewash, but none of that seemed to matter–the overwhelming camaraderie made me wish I could have participated the entire week, but day jobs do call. The stoke was truly palatable when I watched a young lady score great rides and feverishly paddle out for more, an infectious smile constantly plastered to her face. The city of Huntington Beach truly came together in full force to support everyone involved in the event.
It was refreshing to see the amount of love and support throughout this tightly knit community. For a week on the northside of Huntington Pier, a spot noted for it’s territorial locals, those same locals were pushing folks into waves, smiling, hugging, and encouraging even myself to paddle out.
HB, you have my respect. <3