SURFER’s Agent of Change: Operation Amped
An Organization using Surfing to Relieve the Stresses and injuries of War
Editor’s Note: Each year, as part of the SURFER Poll Awards, we recognize an individual or organization making a difference for the betterment of the surfing community. This year the recipient of the Agent of Change Award is Operation Amped, a non-profit aimed at giving back to those who’ve been wounded in service to our country. The following is an article about the organization that appeared in our April 2011 issue.
Retired Army Infantryman Sergeant Wally Fanene sits on the beach and watches the ocean. His right arm is missing from below the elbow and his right leg is gone from above the knee. At 6’0″ and 220 pounds, the missing appendages give him the appearance of some ancient Roman statue, carved from marble, that has been broken down by time. When he paddles out, he wears no prosthetics—he doesn’t like the way they feel in the water. It’s a Saturday afternoon at Silver Strand Beach on Cornado Island—slightly overcast, gusty, temperatures in the low 70s. The waves double over and collapse with a thundering napalm boom. A wetsuit-clad volunteer pushes a paralyzed man, who lies prone on a massive pink foam surfboard into a rushing hill of whitewater. Wally is here today to participate in Operation Amped, a program now in it’s fifth year that uses surfing as a therapy for veterans recovering from grave physical wounds or mental injuries like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Twenty-nine-year-old Fanene was born in Hawaii but grew up in Oceanside, CA, and spent his youth surfing at the pier. His father was in the Navy and both his grandfathers were Army infantrymen. Three years ago in Iraq, he kneeled over a landmine buried in the sand. When he returned home, his wife pampered him with a steady diet of California burritos and he ballooned up to 250 pounds. Unhappy about the weight gain, Wally hooked up with Betty Michalewicz, a Brazilian-born Israeli who is now an exercise physiologist at the San Diego Naval Medical Center. She put Wally on a diet and got him in the pool. Along the way, Betty asked Wally what kind of exercise would make him happy. “Surfing,” he answered. Betty told Wally that the only limitations he had were the ones he placed on himself. “I had no idea what I was talking about,” she admits. “I knew there had to be some way that we could get him surfing.” She asked the technicians at the hospital’s prosthetics department about what kind of gear Wally would need. She queried the Del Mar lifeguards about ideal conditions. She brought a surfboard to Wally’s swimming sessions and made him practice paddling.
Eventually, Betty brought Wally to Del Mar for his first session. He paddled out with a few of the local lifeguards. “He got in the water and immediately wiped out,” Betty recalls. “And then he wiped out again and again. But his smile kept getting bigger and bigger.” So she arranged for Wally to have a week’s worth of surf sessions with a one legged Brazilian surfer called Pirata. Trips to Del Mar became a weekly routine. Wally soon invited another amputee, a close friend and former surfer he’d met in the hospital to join them. Betty started recruiting new surfers, too. Before long, the Naval Medical Center had a surf clinic.
Physicians and psychologists are just beginning to grasp the benefits of surfing for veterans with PTSD and combat injuries. They’ve long known about the general health benefits—that it’s excellent for building muscle tone, balance, and cardiovascular health. Research shows that amputees, especially young ones, guys like Wally, are doomed to suffer from back pain. Surfing, however, appears to be the ideal antidote—it forces you to engage every muscle in your body, especially those in your posterior chain and core.
Soon, Betty began pulling vets who had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into the clinic. It’s been proven that mastering a difficult pastime like surfing—where progress is measurable—bolsters feelings of happiness and self-esteem. Scientists also think surfing might be a positive way to reintroduce warriors who spent a lot of time on the front lines to the feeling of adrenaline. At the very least, surf-based therapy gets vets moving by forcing them out of the rehab clinic. Surfing provides these guys with a renewed sense of freedom. For guys who are dealing with psychological burdens, they’re forced to focus on the ocean for three hours. For the wounded who are missing limbs or are even paralyzed, the water is as an equalizer.
It took Wally more than three months to stand on his board. When he pops up he puts the stump of his right leg down in front and the foot of his standing leg down in the back. It appears as though he’s crouching. He’s able to turn with his back leg and the help of his front left hand, which he uses to pull and guide the front of the board. “When I first got in the water I knew I’d be back. I was too pumped to not get it,” he says. “After a few tries, when I first popped up, it was reassurance that I didn’t waste all of that time that I spent in the pool and that I never let anything get me down too much. The long wait made it so much more rewarding.”
Two days prior to the Operation Amped event in Coronado I went to Del Mar beach to watch the Naval Medical Center’s Surf Clinic. In the parking lot, Betty M. introduces me to Joe Serino. “The fact that he even exists is a miracle,” she says. Serino, an Army scout sniper, was on board an armored Humvee that was ambushed in Southern Iraq in 2007. The initial blast shredded Serino’s right leg and his left leg, still intact, was keeping him pinned inside the vehicle. When Serino came to, his comrades were laying down suppressing fire while his commander was hacking his right leg off with a machete. He lost so much blood that his heart stopped. A surgeon had to crack open his chest and massage his heart back to life.
Now every Wednesday afternoon Serino kisses his wife and kids goodbye and gets in his pickup truck and drives four hours, from his home in Barstow to Del Mar beach. On the afternoon I meet him, Serino is tandem surfing on a 12-foot longboard with a local ripper named Johnny O’Donnell. Joe and Johnny paddle out to the reef at 11th Street and sit 15 yards outside of everybody else in the lineup and catch every big set wave that rolls through. They paddle in unison with incredible pace. Once they’re on the wave Johnny navigates, shouting instructions to Serino, who steers through deep banking turns by shifting his weight from one side of the nose to the other. Their teamwork results in incredibly long, fluid rides. Beachgoers stand at the water’s edge and marvel. “Joe’s a Mexican guy from the Inland Valley,” Johnny says. “He’s not a water guy. He gets excited just paddling out. We go over a swell and drop down the back and he’s hooting and hollering. It reminds me just how fun surfing really is.”
From a clinical standpoint, surfing is vital, because on the days that he surfs Serino doesn’t take the morphine that he has been prescribed to alleviate the pain in his legs. “That was huge,” Betty says. “There’s a pharmaceutical conspiracy—these guys get hooked on the drugs. They build up a tolerance and they need to up their dose or they need a different medication. If I could prescribe anything to Joe Serino it would be a house by the ocean and an hour of surfing every morning. This drug has no side effect.”
When Serino paddles out at Silver Strand a few days later, he’s alone. He spends 25 minutes trying to fight through the soup. He isn’t able to duck dive and doesn’t yet have a waist leash. A mountain of white water knocks him sideways and his board skitters away. He gets sucked backward over the falls and he’s forced to tread water while a volunteer retrieves his board and paddles back out with it. He gets gobbled up by a closeout and again the board flutters up into the air. If his session with Johnny was an exercise in grace and joy, then Saturday afternoon in Coronado is about grit and determination. “The other wounded warriors get frustrated by how hard surfing is and then they see Joe Serino fighting for 25 minutes to get out,” Betty says. “He never gives up. He just keeps paddling harder.”
Just like Betty’s surf clinic, Operation Amped has modest roots. In the summer of 2006, a Los Angeles-based magazine editor and surfer named Tom Tapp was in the Zuma parking lot when “some guy in the back of a pickup truck asks me if I’d carry his surfboard. I’m thinking, ‘The nerve on this guy…’ But then I look up and he’s got no legs below the knees. So I carried his board and he crawled across the sand to the water. It wasn’t a big deal to him; he was just going surfing. And he was a really good knee-rider.” Witnessing the act was a revelation to Tapp, “There are these guys in Iraq and Afghanistan who are fighting for our freedom. And surfing is like the ultimate freedom.” Three months later, in August 2006, eight veterans and 10 volunteers attended the first Operation Amped event at Zuma Beach. The second Operation Amped was a three-day event at Camp Pendleton not long after.
Since then, Tapp has transformed Operation Amped into a grassroots movement; anybody who has a few soft-top surfboards, a knowledge of the sport, and access to a few veterans who are willing to get in the water can pretty much start their own chapter. Tapp is willing to help out as much as he can and says that trying to control the organization is contrary to the spirit of surfing: “If somebody’s stoked, you just gotta let them roll with it.” That philosophy has allowed Operation Amped chapters to pop up all over the country.
On the very same day as the event at Silver Strand, another group of surfers held the first Operation Amped event in Corpus Christi. There’s also AmpSurf, the Helping the Wounded Warriors Surf Camp in Virgina Beach, and the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Boston has its Waves for the Brave Program. In addition, Jimmy Miller Foundation has such an extensive water therapy program that they got Kelly Slater, Taylor Knox, and Bede Durbidge to appear at an event they hosted at Camp Pendleton last summer.
Earlier this year I met a British Gulf War veteran named Rich Emerson who started an offshoot of Operation Amped called Surf Action in Cornwall. The rapid proliferation of surf therapy programs is the clearest indication of just how curative they really are.
What do soldiers think about before going to war? This was the question that Keynan Hobbs, the program coordinator for Operation Amped San Diego, was pondering as he sat on a Blackhawk helicopter in the moments before Operation Desert Storm was about to kick off. At that moment, he remembered a rabbit-hunting trip into the woods of Oregon that he’d taken with his father years earlier. His father had a giant hare his sights, only 15 feet away, but he missed the shot. At the time Keynan dismissed him as a poor marksman. That wasn’t the truth—his father had military training and had served in Vietnam. It was then that Hobbs realized his father had let the rabbit escape. He’d made a conscious decision not to take a life, rabbit or not. This epiphany came too late for Keynan—he was about to be dropped into what he imagined was going to be some horrible shit. Suddenly he was filled with dread and doubt and self-loathing about what he was about to do.
When Keynan returned home after eight months in the desert, every day was a struggle; he was in a constant rage, enduring a never-ending philosophical crisis. “I put my physical well-being, my survival, ahead of my moral integrity,” Hobbs says now, all of these years later. For a long time he avoided other vets—he didn’t want to talk about his combat experience, he wasn’t ready for what thoughts and feelings that might bubble up to the surface. Eventually he was diagnosed with mild Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
More than 15 years after returning home for the Middle East, Hobbs was still stricken by guilt about what he’d done during Desert Storm. He’d long given up on the idea of atoning for what he’d done during the war, but he still felt the need to perform great acts in order to justify his existence. One morning he was checking the surf report online when he spotted an advertisement for an Operation Amped event at Zuma. He drove up to Los Angeles to volunteer. Afterward, Tom Tapp told Keynan that there was no Operation Amped charter in San Diego. During the two-hour drive south from Los Angeles, Keynan convinced himself that this was something that he could do. Something he wanted to do. “There’s an ‘injured veteran mentality’ that the VA hospital seems to reinforce. They give you a score,” Hobbs explains. “You’re thirty percent disabled. Sixty percent disabled. We’re going to give you a dollar amount.’ Go to any VA and you’ll hear a group of guys talking about that. Operation Amped isn’t that. This is the flip side of that. This is how much can you do? Not how much you’ve lost, but how much you’re about to gain back.”
Keynan’s been with Operation Amped for two and a half years now. He insists, “I do this for me. I don’t do it for anybody else. Part of what I really responded to with Operation Amped, with the news guys that come in, is the burden they’re carrying. I recognize that weight on their faces. I know that look. I know that weight. Especially guys who are fresh from combat. They’re still thinking about it a lot. But then later in the day they catch that first wave and all that shit they’ve been carrying with them is gone. They’re lighter.”