LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Matthew Doyle grew up by the beach in Santa Monica, California, and with his slim physique and tattooed forearms, looks like he has been surfing his entire life.
But it took three tours of duty half a world away, many sleepless nights, and meeting a woman named Carly before the 26-year-old U.S. Army veteran braved the waves on a surfboard.
“I fell in love with it as soon as I got in the water,” Doyle said. “After I came back from Iraq, I lost interest in the things I used to do, and I lost a lot of friends from being gone so long. And I never really had a reason to go outside. But now every day I just want to surf.”
Doyle was introduced to surfing by occupational therapist Carly Rogers, who conducts surf therapy classes for veterans at Manhattan Beach, just south of Los Angeles.
The motion of the ocean, riding down the face of the wave, the constant paddling out through the whitewater, as well as the occasional wipeouts, are helping former soldiers, sailors and Marines return to normal.
Rogers estimates that she has worked with at least 400 war vets since she started the program with the Jimmy Miller Foundation, which aims to heal mental and physical illness through surfing, four years ago.
“I had this dream of healing people with the ocean,” she explained.
Surfing helped Rogers deal with the death of her mother in 1994, when she was 18 and working as a lifeguard. As a graduate student, she had designed a surf therapy program for children.
But it wasn’t until after her friend and fellow lifeguard, Jimmy Miller, took his own life that Miller’s brother said they had to make the program a reality.
In 2005, they launched the foundation and began working with children at risk of mental illness, which Miller suffered from. The program was expanded after a foundation board member suggested it could help wounded and emotionally scarred troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“At that time I had no previous experience with the military, and I was actually like ‘Whoa, I don’t think so,’” Rogers said.
Many of those in the program suffer from post traumatic stress disorder with symptoms that include substance abuse, insomnia, isolation, lack of confidence and anger.
Marines at Camp Pendleton, who showed up at the first class in their camouflage fatigues and combat boots, were withdrawn and had little expression. But that soon changed.
“After one day of surfing they were smiling and laughing, telling jokes, high-fiving,” said Rogers.
She used the experience to earn her occupational therapy doctorate, working at the Veterans Administration to research how surfing helps veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Doyle, who was knocked unconscious by an IED (improvised explosive device) suffered a concussion and received six stitches in his forehead, was coping with PTSD after two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“The first year I was deployed didn’t really affect me. It was more shellshock. You don’t really understand what you’ve gone through. And by the time I got a chance to think about it, I was already deployed again.”
The surf-therapy group meets five consecutive Saturdays. It starts with an informal discussion. As beach volleyball players kick up sand nearby, Rogers coaxes the vets to talk about their experiences and progress before they wade into the surf with a volunteer instructor to begin a few hours of surfing.
Doyle managed to stand for a few brief rides before falling into the ocean. But perhaps the biggest benefit came later.
After years of sleepless nights from combat stress, Doyle said he is finally able to sleep.