Thanks to Operation Surf, former service members facing mental and physical injuries are finding new hope
Former pro surfer Van Curaza spent years turning to the ocean for solace as his life spun out of control. Now he’s using the ocean and the power of surfing to help transform the lives of veterans dealing with a range of crippling mental and physical injuries.
“The ocean is the place we go to help bring people together, to build a community, to heal and to develop new tools for living,” Curaza — the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based founder of the nonprofit Operation Surf — tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling you can get from surfing until you do it, but it’s empowered so many of the people we’ve worked with to move forward in their lives," he adds.
Since 2006, Curaza — who first began sharing his passion for the sport with veterans as a way to help overcome his addiction to drugs — has taught over 2,000 former soldiers struggling with PTSD, depression and physical injuries how to surf.
“We’re dealing with so much more than just surfing,” says Curaza, 60, ahead of Veterans Day on Saturday. “But ultimately we’re using the experience to empower these people."
Since then, Curaza has been amazed to watch the transformations that occur amidst the chaos of the pounding surf and the newbie wipeouts as his students learn how to ride waves.
“I remember one of the guys telling me, ‘I’ve been on every drug created to quiet my mind, but surfing is the only thing that’s worked,’” says Curaza. “Water really is healing. It can clear and quiet a brain won’t shut off, that doesn’t know peace.”
Army veteran Joshua Peeters — who had spent years wrestling with crippling self-doubt and struggling to find friends — can attest to the ocean’s power to heal.
In September 2022, nearly three decades after his discharge from the military, Peeters found himself sitting in the tiny travel trailer he’d been living in, eyeing the loaded pistol that he intended to use to end his life.
But before he could pull the trigger, he remembered that he’d made a promise to a fellow vet who had been badgering him for weeks to meet him for a cup of coffee.
“I was in such a dark spot,” recalls Peeters. “I figured, ‘I’ll go take care of this commitment, then I’ll do it.’”
But earlier this year, the 50-year-old vet stopped thinking about ending his life because the man he met up with on that fateful day steered him to Operation Surf. He spent three months working with Curaza and his team of volunteers, learning how to ride the waves.
For Gene Calantoc, whose left leg was amputated above the knee in 2020 after a motorcycle accident ended his 10-year Army career, surfing has been life-changing. “I’ve always been very active and competitive, so I had some pretty sad, depressing days,” says the 39-year-old San Antonio resident, who participated in a weeklong program in 2021. “Being out there in the water taught me there was plenty I could still do without a leg.”
For more on Operation Surf, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
Now a devoted surfer who can often be found out in the lineup three times a week, Peeters finds Curaza’s work is not only life-changing, but life-saving.
“Part of me,” he says, “doesn’t even know if I’d still be here without them.”
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veterans Crisis Hotline at 988; go to veteranscrisisline.net; or text 838255. Outside the military, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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