On Wednesday, September 19, a platoon of injured soldiers and marines from the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital were treated to a day in the surf. Many of these veterans had suffered traumatic brain injuries in combat. Shot, blown up, crashed and crushed, they had all been in rehab for many years, their brains poked, prodded, opened, closed and drugged as part of their long rehabilitation. What these surfers needed was to get away from the shady turf of the hospital and catch some rays in the sunny surf at Zuma.
The Vets were aided and abetted by volunteer surfers from the VA supported by employees of the William Morris Agency: suits in wetsuits who took a day off from work to help these veterans bath their battered brains in those sweet liqueurs that come from hard exercise in the deep and dark blue ocean.
Operation Amped took place in front of Tower 12 at Zuma Beach. The veterans were all met at the beach by Shaun Tomson, a former World Surfing Champion and iconic idol to all surfers, including former Surfing Magazine editor and present William Morris agent Jeff Kolodny. He served as a sort of gentle drill instructor on this day, rallying the vets and instructors to introduce Tom Tapp, a surfer from Calabasas who organized the first Operation Amped: “The first one was August of 2006,” Tapp said. “Very grass roots. Ten surfers and eight soldiers. Most of the vets were shrapnel and gunshot wounds. The second Operation Amped was this past August. 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. Red tape was actually pretty minimal. Many of the organizations who sponsored the event, like The Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA work with the military a lot. They just took care of the red tape for us.”
Randi Woodrow is the Chief Physical Therapist at the Greater Los Angeles VA Medical Center. She was inspired by the Camp Pendleton event to bring Operation Amped to Los Angeles. She explained that all of the men and women on the beach were all strong, healthy people who did interesting things in their military careers, but had acquired disabilities for whatever reason. Looking around, only one of the Stoke Platoon was visibly injured – a guy in his twenties missing an arm and a leg. The others did not appear outwardly injured, but there was a quietness and a shyness and even a slight sadness to some of them which suggested they had been through a lot.
Jeff Kolodny then introduced, “a very special guest. The 1977 World champion from South Africa. Shaun Tomson is here to talk about surfing and he has an amazing book called Surfer’s Code that all the Vets will get a copy of, and you’ll love it.”
Shaun Tomson is tall, dark and handsome and speaks with a precise, elegant South African elocution that makes Prince Charles sound like a hillbilly: “Surfing is a wonderful sport for you guys who haven’t done it,” Tomson said to the Vets. “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, Shaun’s son Matthew died tragically of asphyxiation in what Shaun 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.”