Operation Amped brings vets to Malibu

Surfers from the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center and the William Morris Agency gave surf lessons to disabled veterans at a surf clinic called Operation Amped at Zuma Beach in Malibu last week. Photos by Ben Marcus / TMT

William Morris Agents take war vets surfing.

By Ben Marcus / Special to Malibu Times

Many of them have suffered traumatic brain injuries in combat. They’ve been shot, blown up, crashed and crushed, and some have been in rehabilitation for several years. But last Wednesday, the platoon of injured soldiers and marines from the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center were treated to a day in the surf in Malibu to give them a brief respite from the process of recovery from wounds (both physical and mental) suffered during war.

Volunteer surfers from the Department of Veterans Affairs, supported by employees of the William Morris Agency, donated their time last week to what was dubbed Operation Amped, which took place in front of Tower 12 at Zuma Beach.

Former World Surfing Champion Shaun Tomson and William Morris agent Jeff Kolodny (and a former writer for Surfing magazine) and the other volunteers met the veterans at the beach. Kolodny served as a sort of gentle drill instructor on this day, rallying the vets and instructors, introducing Tom Tapp, a surfer from Calabasas who organized the first Operation Amped at Camp Pendleton in August last year.

“[It was] very grass roots,” Tapp said. “Ten surfers and eight soldiers.”

The second Operation Amped took place in August this year. “It was a three-day event that really blew up. We had about 15 surfers plus Billabong’s surf camp crew plus another 20 or so volunteers. There were 16 vets, all from Iraq and all amputees.”

Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA helped sponsor Operation Amped.

Tomson, who is a native of South Africa and author of the book “Surfer’s Code,” spoke to the vets about the therapeutic benefits of surfing.

“Surfing is a wonderful sport for you guys who haven’t done it,” he said. “It teaches you so much about life. It teaches you about independence and commitment and courage, which you guys know enough about. It can help you if you have terrible challenges in your life. I lost my beautiful boy last year. He was 15 years old and surfing really helped me get through that pain of loss.”

In April of 2005, Tomson’s son Matthew died of asphyxiation in what Tomson described as a “tragic schoolboy prank.”

“You guys have had a similar loss,” Shaun continued. “A piece of you is gone and a piece of me is gone, too. But I think what surfing teaches you is you should just paddle back out, you know? It teaches you there is always going to be another wave out there.”

At the water’s edge, instructors led stretching exercises and gave the veterans hard-sand lessons on paddling and getting to their feet.

Randi Woodrow, chief physical therapist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare Center, then huddled the instructors aside for their own special instructions: “The younger veterans here have traumatic brain injuries. They look normal and they sound normal but they have trouble processing. What I found is: less is more. The best way to instruct them is to show them, not tell them. There is so much going on in their brains that they don’t process. They really have been traumatically injured so give short, simple instructions and lots of positive reinforcing.”

Each veteran had at least two surf instructors help them out into the surfline, pushing them over or under waves, turning them around and then pushing them into the breaking whitewater. Some students wanted instructors hanging on the tails of their boards as they rode into shore; some went at it alone.

Where the scene on the beach had been quiet and a little somber, out in the surf it was all laughter and smiles. Many of the veterans admitted they were out of shape and hadn’t had any real exercise since they were injured. Some came back onshore to take a breather, but all threw themselves back into the surfline as soon as they felt ready.

By the time they came back to the beach for a free lunch, the somberness was gone and now it was surf stoke all around as the veterans and the “suits” bonded.

The “suits” from William Morris were there to surf and not to talk about the war of business in Hollywood, and likewise, the veterans weren’t keen on talking about war. One of the veterans came to the beach and someone asked about his injuries: “I got shot in the head,” he said.

He stared out to sea for a few minutes, caught his breath and said, “But this is fun,” and charged back into the water with a board under his arm.