For years I drove through the Los Angeles VA on a regular basis, if not appalled, definitely saddened by what I saw. It was my shortcut home from my kid's school on the Westside of LA to our house east of the 405 freeway. It was the best way to circumvent the infamous nightmare called LA traffic. While driving through the VA with the kids in the back doing homework, listening to music on their iPods, or fighting, sometimes, all three simultaneously, I'd look around.
There are older barrack type buildings interspersed with newer buildings going up around them. There's the Jackie Robinson baseball field which is spacious and inviting, and then there is the barbershop standing alone on a corner looking right out of movie from the 30's or 40's; a fixture that in its own way warmed my heart. But it was the faces, singular or gathered in small groups that grabbed me by that very same heart and caused me to think. "I have to do something to help this situation" was the sentence formed in total sincerity. By the time I reached home and got dinner started, that thought had completely vanished. Until I got the call.
Someone at the Greater Los Angeles VA liked an article I'd written in July about the partnership between the VA and The Shakespeare Center of LAhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/annie-stein/much-ado-about-something_1_b_5631157.html. Would I like to come to a surf camp in Santa Monica for vets in treatment at the VA?
A "surf camp?" If the guy on the other end of the line didn't sound so darn sincere, I might have thought it was a joke but he did, so I listened. He went on to explain that the greater Los Angeles VA and an organization called Team Red White and Blue were hosting their 2nd surf camp of the summer at the beach in Santa Monica for 25 to 30 vets in treatment at the VA Health Center and would I like to come for the day and see what it's all about. An offer I couldn't refuse! Borrowing an old time surfing term, I was stoked!
It's a sad truth that media coverage focuses on and reports the big, bad, and negative. The reasons why are many and varied, but behind the bold headlines lies just as much, if not much more, big, good and positive. Such is the case with Waves of Valor Surf Camp sponsored by Team Red, White and Blue, a national organization started by Vets for Vets in partnership with The VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. This past summer for the second year, Waves of Valor hosted four surf camps. Held from June to Sept at the beach in Santa Monica and in Huntington Beach, these one day surf camps brought together men and women in treatment at the VA with volunteer professional and amateur surfers, swimmers and community members who just wanted to "give back." After attending the August 9th surf camp, which for me gave new meaning to the expression "fun in the sun" I couldn't wait for the next one; the final surf camp at Chico State Beach in Huntington Beach which was on Sept 27th.
So who are these dudes and what is a day at the beach like with Waves of Valor? Team Red White and Blue is an organization created by Vets to help their fellow Vets in their healing process by reintegrating them into society through sporting activities and community involvement. Started in 2010 by Mike Erin, a major in the army, who felt that what was really missing for returning Vets was connection, and that more needed to be done with them as opposed to for them. The mission statement: To enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them through physical and social activity" could be seen in action on both of the Waves of Valor surf days I attended.
Both days upwards of 30 in treatment veterans from the VA Greater Los Angeles HealthCare System (VAGLAHS) which services over a million veterans from LA to Santa Barbara County, came out to learn to surf. Suffering from a variety of service obtained illnesses from PTSD, brain injuries, paralysis to substance use disorders, these men and women welcomed the chance to hang out with the volunteers and face the challenge of catching a wave. Matthew Harper, the Mayor of Huntington Beach was on hand to kick off the start of this event. He grew up surfing there and said that "few things are more therapeutic than the ocean."
Wearing a camouflaged wetsuit, La Monde, a veteran with 12 years of service behind him including 7 deployments between Iraq and Afghanistan, when asked what the surf day was doing for him, he didn't hesitate in saying it brought "the joy" back into his life. Joy was apparent on the faces of the men and women paddling out with their team of volunteers, four to six to a surfer. Joy in the shouts and cheers coming from the shore when someone stood up and rode a wave. Joy when someone wiped out and got back up again flashing the victory sign, grabbed the board and headed out for another wave!
Chris Widell, National Leadership Director of Team Red White and Blue, a West Point Graduate who served two tours in Iraq, who has been part of Team RWB since the beginning said that he wished the organization had been around when his driver in Iraq, a "great guy and good friend" came home with PTSD. He made it out of Iraq but the struggle at home got the best of him and he OD-ed. Chris thinks of his friend when he sees the connection between the volunteers and the vets on the beach and a flicker of sadness crosses his face. He goes on to talk about the big gap that exists now between civilians and the military as opposed to WWII when "everyone had someone they knew in the military." Today with no draft and so much political diversion and confusion as to why the US soldiers are in these countries, things are very different indeed. Widell, again, stresses that what makes Team RWB different from other organizations helping vets is that what it gives is opportunity not things.
Vet David Vidana couldn't agree more. David graduated from USC in 2001 on an Army reserve scholarship went into active duty in 2002 and a year later got sent home paralyzed from a gunshot wound to his head. Struggling both physically and emotionally for years to get back on his feet, David says the last thing he wanted was to be a burden to his family. "I don't want to be a burden to anyone, really," says the young man who has lost part of his vision, still suffers from seizures and fights the exhaustion from the meds he still takes. David says these events are "awesome because I can talk to other vets, relate and have a sense of community like when I was in the service." He cites Team RWB with giving him "a sense he can do things again." Currently working on a Masters in Public Health at UCLA, David learned to snow board with Team RWB last winter and even though he says he needed to be held up the first few times he tried, credits both the VAGLAHS and team RWB with his ability to overcome the depilating sense of isolation he felt for years after returning home.
It's not just the vets in treatment who benefit from Team RWB events. Michael Green, a 16 year old high school junior from Huntington Beach was "super excited" to be volunteering at the last surf camp. If you had called central casting and asked for two typical California Surf Dudes they would have sent Michael and his pal 17 year old Grant. Both blond, tan and buff, surfing since they could walk, they loved being out in the water with the vets. Asked if they had learned anything from the experience, Michael said, determination, while Eric finished his thought by adding that no matter if they wipe out, the vets wanted to get right back on the board and spend as much time out in the ocean as possible. Another volunteer in an amazing abundance of volunteers that day was Olympic Gold Medalist, swimmer Mike O'Brien. Mike won his gold in the 1984 Olympic 1500 meter free style swim in his "home pool" as a freshman at USC. Coaching David Vidana out in the ocean, they bonded over their USC connection and the Trojans. Michael says back in the day when he was an Olympian, he was often called an "American Hero." Never feeling comfortable with that term, he would cringe, feeling lucky to be doing what he loved. While saying this he looks over to David standing at the shoreline and says "David, he's the real hero. It's humbling to be in the presence of someone who put his life on the line in the line of duty."
Humbling indeed. Inspirational and invigorating as well. I, like Mayor Harper of Huntington Beach, spent most of my summers as a kid at the beach and find the ocean the best therapy. Thank you to the Great Los Angeles VA Health Care System and Team Red White and Blue for giving me the most fun in the sun and most therapeutic beach days I've had in a long, long time! And for showing me that all any of those faces I saw on my short cut through the VA really need from me is what each one of us needs: connection and a sense of belonging.