Veterans surf their way to recovery
Michael Fumarola didn't see the rush of ocean as he sped toward the beach and toppled from his surfboard. He face-planted in the wet, goopy sand and gulped the salty water.
Red-faced and gasping for a quick breath, the blind veteran with multiple sclerosis from the Cincinnati VA Medical Center sucked in some San Diego air and couldn't help but smile.
"That was great!" he yelled.
His instructor, Felipe Rueff, slapped his hands on both sides of his face.
"Atta boy! Do it again?"
Fumarola is one of more than 130 veterans from across the nation in San Diego, California, Sept. 15 to 20, 2019, for VA's National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic. The annual event, presented with the Wounded Warrior Project, brings amputee, paralyzed, blind, and other veterans to learn adaptive surfing, kayaking, sailing, hand cycling and more.
Empower and develop
Michael Fumarola gives a high five after coming in from the surf.
(Photo by John Archiquette)
"This is one of the highlights of VA's commitment to veterans," said Dave Tostenrude, acting director of the Summer Sports Clinic. "This is one of those events that reaches a broader range of vets.
"What we're looking for are vets looking to make changes in their lives, and we don't care where they come from or what their issues are, we're going to work with them, we're going to empower them and develop a plan to be active at home."
Dana Cummings, a Marine Corps veteran who only learned to surf after he lost a leg in a car accident, brought his company, AmpSurf, to the clinic to give the veterans one-on-one training.
"Listen," he told the veterans before they hit the water, "Don't worry. You're going to be fine. I tried this before I lost a leg and failed miserably, now I do it all the time. It's going to be a lot of fun and you're going to have a great time."
Cummings went over the basics of surfing, then vets, instructors and volunteers hit the surf.
"Hell, yeah, let's do it!" said Brandon Starkey, a veteran who lost his leg in a car crash 15 days after coming home from Iraq. "If someone says they can't do this, I call them a liar, because the only limits we have are the ones we put on ourselves."
Fumarola was wheeled down to the surf in a special wheelchair with wide wheels, made to run over the wet sand.
"You think you'll be able to do it?" someone asked.
"I don't know. I guess we'll find out," he laughed. "I've never done it. But you gotta do it to find out. Someone doesn't want to try it, that's just B.S."
First time for everything
Bobby Hutchinson says coming to Summer Sports was part of his transformation to get out of the house, despite an amputation.
(Photo by John Archiquette)
A few feet down the beach, Bobby "Hutch" Hutchinson, who lost a leg in Desert Storm, was still able to get up on one knee as he rode the surf to the beach.
"Hey, I'm surfing, or trying to, anyway," he said. "I got up on one knee, tried to get up and kind of wiped out, but I'm having a blast. There's a first time for everything and here I am. I told some friends I was doing this and they said I'd better videotape it because they want to make fun of me."
But for Hutchinson, from the St. Louis VA, it was about more than just a day at the beach.
"It's about getting out of the house and having something to look forward to," he said. "It gives you hope, you know? It gives you something to try, something different. It's always good to try something new and color outside the box."
It was also emotional for the instructors.
"I've been surfing for 47 years and teaching for 11," Rueff said. "You see these guys drain the water, riding it all the way into the beach, it's great. There is a healing power to the water. You can't tell because I'm all wet, but I get really emotional."
Fumarola said it was an experience he'll never forget.
"I enjoyed the hell out of it. I learned I can do it. There ain't nothing I can't do. Life is great. Love it! Live it!"
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.