Photograph by Rick RIckman
As crashing waves compete with the sound of shelling at Camp Pendleton, a beginner surfer makes her way to her board. “It’s strong,” Sarah Rudder says of the unusually high swells this Saturday morning at San Onofre State Beach.
The left leg of Rudder’s full wetsuit is tied off below her knee—the amputation a result of a devastating ankle injury the former Marine suffered while carrying bodies out of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Rudder, who worked in the Marine Corps headquarters across from the building, was scheduled to be promoted to lance corporal the day American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into it. She was 18.
Now 32, Rudder (who did get that promotion) recently lost her injured leg after years of excruciating pain. And today she’s ready to test the water. A volunteer from Operation Amped pushes her in a beach wheelchair to the surf. He helps her onto a longboard. After paddling out a bit and catching a white-water wave—she rises to her knees and rides it for several seconds before falling. Rudder ends up laughing on the sand: “It was like flying.”
She is among thousands of American veterans who are severely injured and ill, many having seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of the 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, reservists, and guardsmen deployed to those countries since the 9/11 attacks, an estimated 16,000 have suffered severe disabling injuries, including 1,500 single-limb amputations. About 30,000 have some kind of traumatic brain injury, often an invisible wound. And the number of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder soon is expected to reach 500,000. According to a 2010 study, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
Dave Donaldson reads these grim statistics in late August as he sits in one of the rented cottages near the beach where Rudder and 14 other veterans and their families have gathered for a three-day surfing camp-out. He co-founded Operation Amped eight years ago. The nonprofit’s free event is as much about camaraderie as it is about spending time in the water. Local mentors—many are veterans themselves—help participants focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t.
“If I didn’t have surfing, I don’t know what I’d do,” says 32-year-old Christopher Tomlin, who retired from the Marines in July 2013 after serving 14 years, but who still has seizures and memory loss from 13 combat-related concussions. “The water cures all.”
Volunteer Bob Burke teams up with Edwin Gomez, a 20-year-old who’s blind in his right eye and has limited tunnel vision in his left—the result of a howitzer recoiling into his head during training. After 30 minutes riding a longboard together in the punishing waves beyond the surf break, Burke and Gomez retreat beneath a canopy for soft drinks and lunch. Gomez smiles. “I got up a few times,” he says. “I was even standing.”
Says Burke of the veterans: “They come away with a sense of independence, feeling they can do more than they thought they could.”
Surfing and paddleboarding
Project Healing Waters
Tee It Up for the Troops
O.C. Chapter: altavistateeitup.org