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Amputee Iraqi War Vets Learn to Surf

August 22, 2006

Amputee Iraqi War Vets Learn to Surf

Surfers From Around the State Open Their Hearts to Amputees as Billabong’s Surf
Instructors Teach 14 Injured Veterans How to Ride the Waves at Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, CA. Billabong USA - Billabong USA helped treat fourteen seriously injured veterans of the war in Iraq to a week of therapeutic surfing as part of the “Operation Restoration” surf clinic. The event was organized by Operation Comfort, a nonprofit group that rehabilitates wounded servicemen and servicewomen at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, by introducing them to adaptive sports. Billabong’s marketing team arrived at the Pismo Beach event site bringing surf instructors, soft surfboards, wetsuits, tents, and a lot of product for the veterans.

The veterans group arrived Tuesday at Pismo’s Sea Venture Resort from Brooke Army Medical Center, where they have been recovering from injuries suffered during battle. Eight of the vets are amputees, with injuries like double above-the-knee leg amputations and single-arm amputations; four are non-amputees with internal injuries.

Only a day after getting off the airplane, the soldiers were up riding waves Wednesday at the south side of the Pismo Pier in the 1-foot to 3-foot glassy surf. Army Sgt. Chang Wong lost both of his legs in battle during a routine patrol in Iraq as a gunner in a tank that ran over an improvised explosive device. When asked about the experience, Wong said, “It opens my heart to let it out. It kind of gets the amputees back in society to see what they can and can't do,” Wong said of the clinic.

“These guys are just amazing,” noted Paola Gehris, a surf instructor from Billabong’s Safari Surf Camp in San Diego’s Mission Beach. “They never give up and every one of them was able to get up and ride after 3 days of coaching.” Paola and 3 other Billabong instructors came all the way from San Diego, giving up one of their busiest weeks to help support the event.

The event included 3 full days of surf instruction, a golf tournament, outrigger paddling, kayaking, several dinners for the troops and some epic visits to the local drinking establishments.

“I can’t believe how generous everyone has been with all they’ve provided,” said Rodney Roller the local co-producer of the event. “These guys are so stoked with what they have experienced. We owe it to all the great surfers and Pismo sponsors who stepped up and gave from their hearts.”

Veteran Marine and below-the-knee amputee Tim Brumley said he liked surfing so much he may even consider relocating.” I’m not going to the gym anymore; I'm moving out to California,” Brumley said as he sat, short of breath, on the beach after surfing. “I can't explain it. It's a rush - it's just you, the board and the wave,” Brumley said.

The event was organized through the efforts of Petty Officer Derek McGinnis and Operation Comfort director and founder Janis Roznowski, who heard that local surfer/amputee Rodney Roller had organized a successful surf clinic for civilian amputees in 2004.

Operation Comfort has tried exposing injured troops to sports like skiing and activities like rebuilding car engines, but this week's clinic marks the first time surfing has been introduced to the troops, Roznowski said.

“When you've lost a limb, you hurt all of the time,” she said. “They've seen their buddies blown up, and it hurts. They have a drive and an instinct to overcome their disability, and they're going to be successful, and they're going to make America a better America,” she said. “I think this city needs to be called the amputee surf capital of the state.”