I’ve been pretty active in sports all of my life; there aren’t many I haven’t at least tried a few times…but surfing was never an option. I grew up far from any oceans, my body seems to be uncommonly dense (a non-floater) and there was never before an opportunity to try it. Enter Dana Cummings, former Marine, Iraq veteran and avid surfer…but equally important, a man dedicated to giving back to veterans who have lost limbs. (Dana lost a leg after leaving the Marine Corps.) Surfing became a source of serenity and affirmation for him.

It’s a challenging sport to those with all their arms and legs; imagine the balance issues and simply surviving the learning process for amputees. AMPSURF has assembled a cadre of generous volunteers and instructors as well as a protocol which safely allows amputees to experience the singular rush of surfing. There is instruction and a team spaced between the ocean and beach to rescue each participant, once they wipe out. Wipe outs happen with great frequency…but the look of joy and satisfaction on each face as they gain their confidence and balance is rewarding to all. Several managed to stand on their rides and many successfully kneeled (including myself;) The participants included several blind surfers as well as woman born with no arms, who inspired us all with her determination and pluck.

I attended the 5th annual AMPSURF at Pismo Beach this weekend. They put me up in a glorious room at the Sea Venture, overlooking the ocean, with a bedroom fireplace and patio hot tub. I’d anticipated brutally cold conditions and was delighted to discover the air and water temperatures entirely tolerable. The 6 day event began on September 10th, with a Meet & Greet at the local Moose Lodge, name tags and a potluck tri-tip dinner. There I met the AMPSURF cadre as well as other veterans from WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the present Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts, many with their wives and children.

I’d met Dana months earlier at Iraq Star, a golfing event in Woodland Hills, which offered many veteran amputees the chance to enjoy the game of golf. Dana told me about his program and I offered to lend my hand and name if ever he felt I could contribute.

During last nites dinner, Dana introduced me to the gathering. Many had commented that I looked ‘familiar’ to them (I am familiar to most, in that my face has been on their theater and tv screens for several decades) but I am hardly famous. I am passionate about veterans advocacy, however and led my ‘familiarity’ and energy to any project that benefits veterans. When I rose to speak, Dana had already enumerated my work history, so I shared a bit of my military background and thanked them all for their service. Later, I rose once again, remembering to describe how Dana and I had first met and encouraged them all to monitor their well-being and to ask for help if they found themselves struggling with bad memories or mood swings. I explained that I’d been diagnosed with PTSD 22 years ago, I’d been very fortunate to find the help that I needed and the proof of my recovery was the ability to be present and participating, several days before my own resonant anniversary of September 14th. For many years after Vietnam, on September 14th, I’d be likely sitting in a locked and darkened room, in a corner, holding myself and weeping for hours. Thanks to therapy and meds, that’s now just an unhappy memory.

The morning activities would commence at 7:30 AM, so I rolled out pretty early for me, around 9 PM and made my way back to the Sea Venture. I’ve never before had a spa on my own deck, so I pulled off the cover, cranked it up and slipped into it, hoping for a “hot tub time machine” experience. No such luck but I enjoyed the heated water in the cool nite air and reflected on my own progress, almost 41 years to the day after losing my life in Vietnam. These days, life is challenging for many of us, some more so than others…but life is good and I am grateful.

I awoke at 5:50 and not trusting my alarm setting, got up and packed, wanting to check out and save them an additional days billing. After coffee and loading my car, I wandered down to the beach, just few hundred yards away and checked in. The crowds slowly grew as participants arrived and I was assigned to my instructor John and our participant, Alan, who’d recently purchased his own wet suit and laughingly offered one of his rubberized “surfing shoes” to anyone interested. (Alan had lost his right leg.) I wandered over to the equipment booth and received a medium sized wet suit.

OK, lessons learned: Putting on a wetsuit for the first time can be strenuous. It’s tight, unfamiliar and sort of a full body girdle. (Taking it off is equally taxing, it’s tight, wet and you are truly “tuckered out”;)

Once zipped in, I felt like an astronaut or a superhero. Initially, I entered the water to support Alan’s first session but was ordered out. Dana was determined to make me a surfer and advised me to save my energy. Probably wise guidance, for my turn came, soon enough. As I paddled out and negotiated incoming waves, I tried to remember all the instruction I’d just received: don’t hold the rails, hands under my chest and centered, look up, come first to my knees…We turned towards shore, John pushed me off and…I was sailing along, struggling to find my balance and within seconds, I was suddenly underwater;)

My second effort was better and I managed to rise to my knees and ride the wave, generating cheers from my handlers and the shore. After a couple more knee rides, tongue waggling, I’d succeeded in finding a comfort level and started feeling downright cocky as I make my first attempt to stand. Alas, I was too far forward, my board nose pearled and I followed shortly thereafter, noticing how very BIG that board is as it shoots by me! I was by now gasping, my handlers somewhat concerned and I explained that I’d begun smoking before they began breathing. That and the fact that any new physical activity is quickly tiring; we’re using new muscles (actually, mine are kinda old;), haven’t yet learned to relax and that struggle for balance is really exhausting.

The bullhorn sounded, ending my first session and I gratefully trudged to shore, offered an orange slice, water and a towel. I was winded but encouraged, hoping next time I might remember to look UP at the shore rather than down at the water and my board. In surfing, you go where you look…

Alan was back out and acquitting himself honorably, his surfing cap making him look far younger than his 61 years and his smile lighting the beach, one among many other smiles. I enjoy the success and effort of so many others, each enjoying a few moments of triumph. The bullhorn sounds, I fetch Alans crutches and give my cadre a moment to catch their own breath. Their work must be exhausting, vigilant to respond immediately when their student tumbles into the water.

OK, round two. I’m back out, now on a new board, lots of ribbed rubber decking to help me get a grip. I catch a great wave, feeling more confident now and immediately rise to my knees….and then suddenly UP, standing, ecstatic for a few memorable seconds and then DOWN as I lose my balance. I surface, cadre around me, helping me up, slapping me on the back in congratulations. And I am roaring with laughter, I can’t stop! As soon as I can catch my breath, the laughter returns, over and over and over. I made a few more runs but that was as good as it got and that was pretty effing great! I was shot, my legs were rubber and I knew it was time to call it a day. I trudged to the shore for the last time, thanked my handlers and teacher and gratefully accepted a bottle of water. That was way cool! Just those few seconds of standing on that moving platform, being a participant in this Sport of Kings is a memory that will remain with me.

I’m so happy for the veterans that AMPSURF has served, over the years. I hope they’ll continue to receive the support and attention needed to fund their program and share this magical experience with many other veterans. Thank you, Dana…and my thanks to all that support AMPSURF.

11 SEP 2010