Giving back with surf

Dave Townley films war veteran Todd Newton catching a wave at Zuma Beach during Operation Amped's surf event for war veterans on Thursday. Photo by Pam Rittlemeyer

Malibu jumps in to take injured veterans surfing.

By Ben Marcus / Special to The Malibu Times

Three days after Memorial Day, two dozen disabled American veterans swarmed the surf at Zuma Beach, Tower 12. Escaping the shady turf of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital, the Marines, soldiers and sailors came to Malibu for a day of surfing, hosted and helped by the volunteers and organizations behind Operation Amped.

A group of surfers founded Operation Amped in 2006 with the purpose of “giving back to those who’ve been wounded in service of our country,” the group’s Web site states. The organization hosts surf events, from one day up to a week, where wounded vets “have the chance to get free of the constraints that illness or injury has imposed on them. Many have never set foot on a surfboard. Many have never set foot in the ocean. Some can’t even swim. But with the support of this grassroots effort, everyone has fun.”

Among the many Malibu citizens who were there to help last Thursday was newly minted City Councilmember Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner. Wagner, a surfer, surf instructor and owner of Zuma Jay surf shop, spends a great deal of time at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command and at Camp Pendleton, using his Hollywood special effects skills to simulate battle conditions for marines and GIs training for the real thing.

Wagner, standing with Malibu Mako’s Skylar Peak and Hawaiian big-wave surfer Ken Bradshaw, said, in opening the day’s event, “Some of you can’t swim and some of you can’t even walk, but we’re here to help you get a taste of what myself and a lot of the others can’t live without. We appreciate you coming and the efforts of everyone you see here.”

Peak, also a surf instructor, had brought a truckload of surfboards, wetsuits, towels and surf booties to the beach. Pro surfers Shaun Tomson, Garrett MacNamara, Jamie Sterling, Allen Sarlo, and Pat and Tanner Gudauskus joined Peak and the others.

Not only do surfers put in their time for this event, but well-known Hollywood talent agents, such as Sylvie Rabineau and husband Steve Rabineau of the William Morris Agency, and actors and other artists also volunteer for Operation Amped, some since its inception. Agents Jeff Kolodny and Aaron Reed, both of William Morris, joined the Rabineaus on Thursday, and actress Genevieve Cortese, star of ABC Family Network’s “Wildfire,” and surf writer Kem Nunn also helped out. Randi Woodrow, event coordinator, James Sampson, IT, Marsha Lovett, physical therapist and Kurt Bormann, Health Systems Specialist represented the Veteran’s Administration.

Sylvie Rabineau joined her husband last year for the first time and, inspired to help more, pushed to have more than one surf event per year. This year, there is one event per month taking place, with two more planned for Malibu.

After Wagner’s welcome, there was a movement of about 60 people toward the water.

Some veterans were missing arms and legs. Others couldn’t walk and had to be transported to the edge of the ocean in special chairs. Many of the veterans had suffered traumatic brain injuries; large, jagged scars could be seen on shaved heads. Many have spent months, and even years, in hospitals and rehabilitation.

Those who had lost the use of their arms or legs were helped onto boards and pushed into waves. “I didn’t think the waves would be so fast,” said Harold “Leon” Bostick, who had lost the use of his legs in a training accident. “After I was injured, I started doing all the things I hadn’t done before, and surfing is one of them. I can ride a bodyboard out there and it’s all the same to me. The water and the exercise just feel good.”

Operation Amped occurred on the same day the Army announced that suicides in 2007 had hit an all-time high-in an era when military veterans are reportedly committing suicide at the alarming rate of 18 a day.

This is the third year for Operation Amped, and the volunteer program is slowly growing with increased cooperation from the Veteran’s Administration and external help. There have been success stories already.

Dirk Ortega was in the Army and training to go to Iraq and put out the oil fires of 1992 when he was injured in a fall from a deuce and a half. He had participated in Operation Amped in the fall of 2007, and it changed his life: “I was pretty messed up for about seven years and lost contact with my family,” Ortega said. “But my mom found me after seeing me surfing on TV. We met for Mother’s Day and that is all going great. And I bought a 7′ 2″ and surf Venice whenever I can. I can’t live without it now.”

More information about Operation Amped can be found online at