Meet Gordie. He’s a military veteran. His age is hard to pin down. He’s probably in his early 30s but looks double that. He can’t walk properly, he stoops with a kind of sideways hunch as if he might keel over at any moment. In fact, he can’t walk at all without assistance. He has virtually no hearing or sight. He’s been blown up nine times. And he desperately wants to go surfing.
Meet Martin. He’s a veteran, too. He’s got no legs anymore, and he’s only got one arm left. His other three limbs were blown off by an I.E.D. somewhere in Afghanistan. He’s experimented with prosthetics but can’t get them to fit properly. He’s been offered surgery to have steel rods inserted into his empty leg sockets, but he’s turned it down because it might stop him surfing. In his eyes “surfing’s more important than walking.”
And meet Bobby. He suffers from PTSD as a result of his time in the US Marines. His cupboards are filled with prescription meds that don’t work. He’s got drugs to counter-balance other drugs, and he can’t remember what most of them did in the first place. He flies into blind rages sometimes, then forgets why. He doesn’t sleep. He says that forgiving himself has been the hardest thing about coming home from war. That’s to be expected, as he says, when you “take a child’s life.” Bobby wanted to surf as well. In fact, going surfing was supposed to be the last thing he ever did.
He says “I was going to go surf, make sure everything was in order, then I was going to get my gun and kill myself.”
These stories are documented in the superb Netflix documentary Resurface. Gordie, Martin, Bobby, and many others like them, suffering from a range of physical disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, have been introduced to surfing via a program called Operation Surf.
All three of these men had their lives changed by surfing. In Bobby’s case, surfing literally saved his life, ensuring that he didn’t become one of the 22 veterans who take their own lives every 24 hours in the United States. A shocking fact that’s cited in the documentary and was uncovered by a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013.
Run by California native and lifelong surfer Van Curaza, Operation Surf aims to use surfing as a mechanism of healing for ex-servicemen and women. Curaza himself admits to battling drug addiction in the past and was compelled to start Operation Surf when years later he realized that “surfing was the only thing that had kept my life intact.”
Resurface gives a glimpse into some of the ways in which surfing can grant meaning and purpose to the lives of those who need it most. The simple beauty of surfing is that it commands all of your focus and presence – certainly to do it well, and certainly as a beginner. For war veterans conditioned to be purposeful, but whose lives may lack a clear purpose and direction after leaving the military, surfing can be the savior they need. As one of the surf coaches involved in Operation Surf says in the documentary “[surfing] helps them describe themselves with a new story.”
Thanks to Operation Surf, some of these men and women have been given, quite literally, a reason to live. As they say in the film: “If you’re thinking about what the waves are doing tomorrow, you’re not going to kill yourself today.”
Occasionally, you’re lucky enough to stumble on something that contextualizes your minor gripes about bad days at work, bad weather blues, or whatever else. That’s what Resurface did for me, and that’s why you should make it your next viewing priority. It’s genuinely life-affirming. I promise that after 26 minutes you’ll feel that the world is good and you can achieve whatever you like within it. And perhaps, like me, you might even feel more grateful for your own comparatively blessed surf experiences.