What It’s Like To: Teach Wounded Vets to Surf

Photo credit: Emily J. Davis


Former pro surfer Danny Nichols of Huntington Beach shares his love of the ocean to help soldiers heal.

Istarted surfing when I was 9 years old. I know now it was my sanctuary. I didn’t feel normal or comfortable unless I was in the water. I still feel that today. Surfing helped keep me from going down the wrong path in a lot of ways. I was fortunate to be good enough where I could compete, and having those goals got me focused.

Getting invited by Van Curaza to be a surf instructor with (his nonprofit organization) Operation Surf changed my life. I got to witness first-hand what the ocean provides: the healing and the camaraderie between the surf instructors and the participants. There is just a bond.

A lot of participants who come to Operation Surf, they’ve never surfed before. They may be going through a medical recovery, a recent amputation, or limb salvage, and the mind is going through a vortex of negativity. There are the physical injuries and the invisible injuries; a lot of times, they come hand in hand.

At Operation Surf, we stay together the whole week: breakfast, lunch, dinner. And we do a daily debrief. We review all the day’s footage. We have a media team who films the whole day, and we’ll all watch each other surf and wipe out and high-five and have fun. There’s a lot of laughter and bragging rights. Then we go around the room and talk about a high and low of the day or a goal that we met or challenge that we’re facing. It allows us to take the mask off and share with each other what’s going on. That element right there is the bonding agent to the whole week. It’s intimate, and it’s super powerful. When you do that and you go out and surf the next day, you start to have a better understanding of each other, and the teamwork becomes even deeper.

We had a gentleman who came out and was going to check surfing off his bucket list, and he was going to go home and end things because his situation was so bad. He said once he caught that first wave, he realized that his life wasn’t his to take. He’s had a complete 180-degree turn since then. He’s married, has a beautiful child, he’s very passionate about helping others, and is an ambassador for Operation Surf.

We have another participant who’s a triple amputee. His major frustration was that he was never going to be able to do things that other people can. The first time he went surfing, he looked around to his left and right to individuals who had all their limbs or who might have been missing one, and he was doing as well as they were. What he realized is that surfing is the great equalizer. He can actually use his body to his advantage. He can use his low center of gravity and work more from the hips. He’s on fire. Surfing has changed his life.

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