Sunday, August 23, 2009

For Veterans, a Gift from the Sea

It may seem counterintuitive, but surfing can replace a bit of what war has taken away.

Steve Lopez - August 23, 2009

If you had seen Tatiana Reyes in the water at Zuma Beach last week, gliding smoothly toward the shore, you couldn't have guessed she was nearly killed in a crippling explosion while serving in Iraq. She looked like she could have been one of the surfing instructors.

If you had seen a smiling Richard Pineda stand up cleanly on wave after wave, with confidence and uncanny balance, you couldn't have imagined he needs a GPS device to remember how to get back home after an outing.

The concept sounds counterintuitive at first: You take veterans recovering from brain trauma and other injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan and, for therapy, you put them on surfboards for the first time in their lives, lead them into the chilly, crashing surf and wish them luck.

But this is what the medical staff at the VA hospital in West L.A. is trying, and Pineda is among dozens of veterans who say the prescription is helping.

"Being out there, I have freedom," said Pineda, 32, a Marine who lives in Los Feliz.

Pineda was too close to far too many explosions and mortar attacks while serving in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Like a lot of vets, he kept his struggles to himself after returning home. He didn't talk about the memory lapses or the noises and smells that triggered flashbacks, but friends knew he needed help when they saw him cowering at a fireworks show in 2005. It turned out that on top of his emotional issues, Pineda was having small cerebral aneurysms. He was referred to a polytrauma unit at the VA.

The chief of physical therapy there, Randi Woodrow, had been to a Camp Pendleton surf clinic run by a friend.

"It was absolutely one of those life-changing events," said Woodrow, who saw smiles on the faces of injured vets and knew she had to make surfing a regular part of her program in Los Angeles.

The guy who helped make it happen was Tom Tapp, a Los Angeles entertainment journalist who had been inspired by meeting an amputee while surfing. He then saw a news story about men and women with missing limbs coming home from the war and immediately started Operation Amped, getting support from the William Morris Agency and Billabong, among other companies.

Tapp and Woodrow have staged several of the surf clinics each year since 2007, and one of Woodrow's first patients to put on a wetsuit was Richard Pineda.

"I was pretty excited about it," said Pineda, but that's not how Woodrow remembers it.

"Tatiana and Richard were both very timid," she recalled. "It was a lot of sensory overload."

Not only had neither of them ever surfed; their disabilities made the prospect of getting thrashed by waves all the more intimidating. They had one thing going for them, though, Woodrow said. They were trained to follow orders, and she and Tapp had recruited a battalion of volunteer surf instructors -- including physicians and therapists -- to lead the mission.

On his very first day as a surfer, Pineda stood up on a board. Now that he's been back several times, he rides everything. Small rollers. Right breaks. Even waves that are probably too big, but no instructor is inclined to hold him back.

"Yeah, Richard!" is heard over and over at Zuma, as a smiling Pineda comes barreling toward the shore in a spray of white foam.

"He's a horse," VA psychiatrist and longtime surfer Jon Sherin told me as we bobbed in the waves and watched Pineda ride to shore time after time in his low stance, arms extended like wings.

Sherin, associate chief of psychiatry and mental health, has given surfing pointers to vets battling post-traumatic stress disorder, and he's also helped paraplegics and a quadriplegic ride waves.

"Whether you agree with the war or not," Sherin said, "we have a duty to help look after them and re-integrate them."

Surfer that he is, Sherin said there's something Zen about riding waves and being present in the moment, rather than in a constant reflection of lingering pain and stress. For vets, in particular, he thinks standing up on a board with a tidal force at your back helps to "de-mysticize and de-energize fear."

There was a time when Reyes, 24, could not have imagined trying to surf. The Gardena woman had enlisted in the Army at 21 and soon found herself driving a truck through Iraq.

"You saw things blow up and you got shot at," she said.

Danger became so routine, she didn't give it much thought. But on March 9, 2007, an explosive device hit her truck.

"I don't remember much," she said. "I was in and out of consciousness."

Her left leg was nearly destroyed, her lungs had collapsed, her colon was damaged, she had a brain injury and flesh had burned off her withered left leg. Doctors patched her together and she was flown to Germany for treatment, but she has no recollection of any of that. Next she was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for months of treatment and too many surgeries to count.

"They told my family, like, 'I don't think she's going to make it.' "

But Reyes fought through the physical injuries and then the psychological ones as well. She found herself conflicted about the war itself, troubled by all the death and suffering and crushed by the thought of being disabled for life. Once she returned to California, she was deeply depressed, had trouble sleeping and weighed only 80 pounds.

And they wanted her to go surfing?

All right, she said.

"I was so scared the first time. I was so weak."

Reyes had to be helped into the water, but there she was on a board, confronting her fears, wiping out and trying again. In her third outing last week, she was standing up with help from instructors and riding waves. Before I knew her story, I was in the water and saw Reyes paddling by me with a smile on her face. The wetsuit covered her scars, which was why I assumed she was one of the instructors.

Later, as she told me her tale on the beach, she was charming and self-possessed, and funny too.

"I did some cool things in the Army," she said, "but blowing up was a negative."

At an awards ceremony after the surfing, Dirk Ortega, who was badly injured in training before he shipped out with his army unit, was named the most inspirational vet on a board.

Pineda got an award for riding the longest wave.

And Reyes was named

the hardest charger, a reference to more than the way she surfs.

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