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Veterans Get on Board at Surfing Camp

Servicemen who lost limbs in war learn to ride the waves in Pismo Beach. Their teacher is a champion amputee surfer.

September 03, 2006|From the Associated Press

PISMO BEACH, Calif. — After Navy corpsman Derek McGinnis lost his left leg in a suicide bombing attack, he knew it wouldn't stop him from surfing again. As a child of 1970s California, riding waves felt like a birthright.

So he rallied nearly a dozen wounded-in-action amputees he met while recovering in Texas and headed for one of California's last old-fashioned beach towns.

The ocean was a second home to some, but the closest others had come to riding a wave were B-movie inspired dreams. All were here to learn from a champion surfer who himself had just one leg.

"I have a board and [have to] make sure I keep on using it," said McGinnis, a Navy petty officer and medic who began surfing in Northern California when he was 10. "I said, 'Man, I've got to be able to do it. It's possible.' "

And there he stood on a foggy August morning, wearing an ear-to-ear grin and a brand new wetsuit.

Another on the beach was Tim Brumley, 26, who had never been on a surfboard, though he looked the part with his short-cropped blond hair. The former paratrooper, who lost a leg in Afghanistan last year, had seen the Pacific Ocean only once, when he visited San Francisco as a boy.

When Brumley was a teenager in New Mexico, he saw a movie filled with chase scenes, shootouts, skydiving and some of the best surfing ever filmed.

"When I saw 'Point Break' I said, 'That's it! I want to surf!' " said the veteran of the Army airborne infantry, as he told war stories at a seaside bar the night before his first lesson.

He recalled how he walked into a building where a booby trap changed his life. The year before, he had parachuted into Iraq, unscathed in the midst of explosions and tracer bullets.

Pismo Beach, between Santa Maria and Morro Bay along the Central Coast, is perhaps most famous to tourists for its clams. But to surfers it means smooth waves, mild weather and white beaches more likely to yield a sand dollar than a rock. It is also one of a vanishing breed of surfside towns, a place where die-hards park beat-up recreational vehicles for free next to the sand and head to the waves.

Better yet for McGinnis and friends, it's also the home turf of surfer Rodney Roller. After losing a leg in a forklift accident 16 years ago, Roller returned to the water lugging a 25-pound wooden limb that could withstand corrosive salt water -- bartered from a doctor-surfer for a board that Roller made.

Now a champion amputee surfer, Roller, 39, teaches other amputees. After McGinnis tracked down Roller online, Roller agreed to instruct the military men for free if they could get to California. He figured it was payback for all the people who helped him get back in the water.

McGinnis met most of his crew at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he was recovering after a suicide bomber crashed an explosives-laden car into his ambulance two years ago.

Operation Comfort, a San Antonio-based organization that helps wounded veterans rebuild their lives, raised money for the trip.

Among the veterans were former Army Sgt. Chang Wong, 24, who lost both legs when his tank ran over an explosive device, and Jesse Schertz, 22, a retired Marine corporal from Peoria, Ill., who had been badly burned and lost a leg. Others in the group had lost arms while in combat.

But the surf was up now, and for the moment none of that mattered.

"It's going to be a blast," McGinnis said. "It will show you can achieve anything. No matter what, you can overcome."

During a brief demonstration on the shore, Brumley and the others were shown how to get on a board and maintain their balance. First they were taught how to paddle, sometimes awkwardly -- "one arm at a time" as the instructor said.

"I've only got one arm, dude," shouted Michael Owens, 22, a former Marine who lost a limb when his convoy was ambushed in Iraq. That rejoinder quickly broke up the group. It was time to get wet.

In the first few minutes, some missed waves, some waves capsized boards, and in a few instances, some boards rocketed forward as if shot from cannons.

Then a cheer rose and enveloped the beach. McGinnis was having a nice ride 30 minutes into the day.

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