Feeling safe in the surf - How Operation Surf helps veterans through surfing

Feeling safe in the surf - How Operation Surf helps veterans through surfing

With an estimated one in three veterans diagnosed with PTSD and fewer than 40% seeking help, it is the mission of Operation Surf to support veterans through the healing power of the ocean and surfing.

A results-driven organisation, they believe in promoting wellness through nature-based therapy by providing curriculum-based programs for injured military and veterans in the US. The programs help veterans to develop confidence and seek wellness in all aspects of their lives through the skills gained by surfing.

Surfers stood on boards on the san in a circle on the beach


Working alongside Dr. Russell Crawford during his book "The Impact of Ocean Therapy on Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder", the organisation has reported some incredible results in treating PTSD through nature-based therapy.

Here at dryrobe® we’re stoked to be able to support Operation Surf through our Warmth Project, supplying dryrobe® Advance change robes to keep participants warm and dry between surfs.

Operation Surf veterans stood by US flag in Black Camo dryrobe® Advance change robes



We were excited to talk to Operation Surf’s Communications Manager, Payton Carty about the progression of the charity, the attraction of surfing for veterans, and the skills and benefits that their programs provide.

Operation Surf veterans lying on surfboards on the beach during a surf lesson



When Operation Surf started in 2008, what was the response like by the veteran community, and how has interest grown since?
In the beginning, Operation Surf solely worked with the Brooke Army Medical Center/ Center for Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas. BAMC is a large military trauma hospital serving recently wounded, recovering active duty and veterans.

The response was incredibly powerful as we helped severely wounded men and women in their recreational rehabilitation journey. Over time, we gained more exposure and Operation Surf spread through word of mouth.

As we grew, we were able to offer additional programs and spots to participants outside of the hospital. We still partner with BAMC today in addition to hundreds of additional veterans through our application process. The response has been overwhelming; every program gains three to four times the amount of applications per spot available. Our goal is to continue to grow, raise money, and offer more programs to meet the need.

Surfers doing headstands on surfboards on the beach



What is it about surfing in particular that draws people to your programs?
The common thread we hear from our Alumni is that the ocean and surfing provides a sense of peace and comradery. Because our world is full of noise, people desire a place where they can allow their minds to rest.

Surfing requires you to be fully present - juggling the swell in addition to outdoor elements and everyone around you leaves no room for the mind to wander.

We believe veterans are drawn to surfing because of how grounded and present they feel out in the water. In addition, riding a wave is a euphoric feeling comparable to no other.

Surfer riding a wave in green rash vest



What skills can veterans discover that will help them not only in the water but in other areas of their lives too?
Through surfing and community, veterans learn the power of sharing their story. Surfing creates a safe place for people to learn, fail, and try again. Not only are the veterans learning how to surf, they are learning how to connect with themselves in the process

Very often, we hear that it's hard for veterans to take time for themselves, to "work" on themselves.

After a program ends, we continually hear encouraging feedback from the families of participants. They are so happy to have their spouse, parent, sibling, friend, etc. back feeling alive and ready to move forward in life employing healthy and productive choices.

A surfer catching a wave with a dog on the surfboard



OS6 is a six-month, locally-focused program for local Central Coast Veterans. What are the benefits of committing to a six month long program?
When veterans commit to a six-month-long program, the extended period of time allows them to settle in and develop a routine. They have time to foster meaningful friendships and belong to something bigger than themselves.

In addition to the connections veterans build, they learn ocean safety/etiquette and improve their surf skills.

Another key benefits of OS6 is the development of self-efficacy. In Dr. Russell Crawford's book, "The Impact of Ocean Therapy on Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder", he hypothesized how therapy is another form of nature-based therapy that could potentially be effective for treating PTSD.

His research on Operation Surf showed that participants experienced:

  • A 36% decrease in PTSD symptoms
  • A 47% decrease in depression
  • A 68% increase in self-efficacy


The last statistic is critical because when a person increases their self-efficacy in one area (i.e surfing), it will bleed into other areas of their life. Most importantly, strong self-efficacy strengthens familial relationships.

A surfer catching a wave in the sea



As a results-driven organisation, you have worked with marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols on his book Blue Mind which evaluates the remarkable effects of water. How did this come about and what key points were discovered?
Years ago, Operation Surf was connected with Wallace J. Nichols. We were featured together in Southwest Airlines in-flight Spirit magazine. We connected, shared our missions, and knew we are on a similar path. It cultivated great connections and networks for each other.

Wallace featured the work of Operation Surf in his book, Bluemind. It helped spark the idea in our minds that water is medicine, and what we do can truly improve a person's health.

Additionally, this led to meeting Dr. Russell Crawford and began our journey of research. Dr. Russell Crawford studied our participants for three years and discovered after going through our program one in three combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD and less than 40% seek help. Also, 84% of those suffering from PTSD deal with depression, alcohol and substance abuse, hopelessness, despair, employment problems, relationship issues and physical violence.

Crawford’s research on our Operation Surf program showed that participants experienced a 36% decrease in PTSD symptoms, 47% decrease in depression and a 68% increase in self-efficacy after attending Operation Surf.

A surfer pushing a surfboard on a wave with a dog on the board



What exciting plans do you have in the pipeline for Operation Surf in the next year?
Operation Surf is excited to be working with dryrobe® and other organisations that support our mission. The pandemic posed a tough challenge of finding support to keep doing what we do.
We have been working with Jon Ossie, a graduate student at the University of San Diego since early 2021. He is leading our research and data analytics effort conducting a study to evaluate the effectiveness of our Operation Surf program!

Since Jon was with us during the height of the pandemic, we have data from that extremely stressful time. Now that the world is beginning to return to normalcy, Jon is still collecting data on our participants post-pandemic.

We are so excited to share these results in the near future! Once his research is completed, we hope to collaborate with like-minded, solution-oriented people and/or organisations to progress our mission.

A veteran in a green Operation Surf rash vest catching a wave when surfing



If a veteran was curious about trying surfing for the first time, what advice would you give them?
Go for it! Take the step, have a bit of willingness, keep low expectations, and just have fun. Find a reliable teacher that will give you the basics, take you to a safe spot, and get the right equipment - those make a difference. And after you try it, remember: if surfing is not your thing, that's okay. Keep trying new things! It is all about the experience.

A female veteran smiling in sunglasses wearing a Black Camo dryrobe® Advance change robe at an Operation Surf event



Follow Operation Surf:

Facebook: Operation Surf
Instagram: @operationsurf
LinkedIn: Operation Surf

operationsurf.org

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