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Surf’s Up as Wounded Servicemembers Crest New Waves

By Mike Dulevitz
Special to American Forces Press Service

PISMO BEACH, Aug. 25, 2006 – For one wounded warrior, the thought of never being able to surf again haunted him after losing his left leg above the knee in Iraq to a vehicle-borne bomb.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek McGinnis hits the waves again in Pismo Beach, Calif. McGinnis and 12 other wounded warriors from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, took part in the six-day event Aug. 15 to 20. McGinnis hoped to surf again after losing his leg in a vehicle-borne bomb blast while serving in Iraq. He helped to make that dream a reality for himself and the other wounded warriors in attendance. Photo by Mike Dulevitz

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Derek McGinnis, who grew up near Freemont, Calif., has loved the water and the beach for as long as he can remember.

Taking up skim-boarding at age 8, his zeal for riding the waves led him to surfing as a teenager. Once he tried it, he was hooked. He had found his niche.

“Surfing was a way for me to do what I love -- being in the water, getting away from it all,” McGinnis said. “When you are out there on the water and riding the waves, you feel an immense feeling of freedom and peace.”

McGinnis suffered intense trauma from the explosion the day he was injured, and has been battling back at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. A never-say-die spirit, coupled with the very best medical care available, brought him back to a remarkable state of mental and physical fitness.

An avid sportsman, McGinnis now enjoys running, golfing and water sports. Still, surfing was on his dream sheet of things he still wanted to try as an amputee.

“After such a long road to recovery, running was a pinnacle for me, but being able to surf again was my dream,” he said.

McGinnis talked with Janis Roznowski, the founder and executive director of Operation Comfort, an Austin-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the betterment of life for wounded servicemembers and veterans.

“I asked Janis if there might be a surfing trip on the horizon, and she told me that she would check into it,” McGinnis said.

Roznowski set out to help make McGinnis’ surfing dream a reality.

"These veterans have given so much for us," Roznowski said. "I couldn't think of a better way to lift their spirits and help them experience what is still possible."

McGinnis looked up amputee surfing in publications and on the Internet. His search led him to Rodney Roller in Pismo Beach, Calif.

Roller is an amputee and a surfing champion, who organized a successful surf clinic for civilian amputees in 2004. He was quick to jump on board for the wounded warriors, enthusiastically beginning the coordination to make the BAMC surf trip a reality.

"I feel so humbled by their service and their sacrifice," said Roller. "I want to help these injured veterans realize that there is life after disability."

When the arrangements had all been made, 13 wounded warriors were taken to Pismo Beach to learn surfing. The trip was a hit for them all.

“This is something I have wanted to do ever since I was 13 years old, and now I am going to get to do it,” said Army Sgt. Timothy Brumley, a below-the-knee amputee.

Prior to the trip, Brumley likened his trip anticipation to that of a child at Christmas, just waiting for the chance to open his presents. “Christmas came again in August this year!” said Brumley, grinning from ear to ear.

Besides surfing, the group enjoyed golfing, outrigger kayaking and canoeing.

Mark Heniser, a BAMC physical therapist who accompanied the wounded warriors on the trip to provide medical and prosthetic support, was not surprised when they learned to surf in such a short amount of time.

What did surprise Heniser was the community support and organization that he saw in Pismo Beach.

“I knew our guys and gals could meet any physical challenges put before them, because we challenge them more and more each and everyday in the rehab arena,” Heniser said. “They not only meet those expectations, they exceed them.”

The weeklong surfing clinic and community activities were the result of the efforts of a coalition formed by Operation Comfort; the Wood River Ability Program from Sun Valley, Idaho; and its newest member, the Amputee Surfers Alliance based in Pismo Beach. Their efforts, coupled with the generosity and support of the local Pismo Beach community, made the event a success.

“This is one small way we found to say a heartfelt thank you to our men and women who serve this great country, not only in peacetime, but at war as well,” said Dean Mignola, the event public relations officer.

Also partnering in the event were Billabong USA, a sportswear and casual clothing manufacturer, and Pancho’s Surf Shop, a local Pismo Beach surfing retailer. Billabong provided instructors, wetsuits and the boards for the group. Jim Kempton, director of camps for Billabong, was on hand to ensure everything went smoothly with regard to equipment requirements.

“Billabong is proud to support this event and, in so doing, the men and women of our armed forces,” Kempton said, adding that Billabong would be a willing participant in any future endeavors. “It is a privilege to be here.”

(Mike Dulevitz is assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs.)

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