Military veterans ‘Resurface’ through surf therapy off SLO County’s coast

In the opening sequence of the documentary “Resurface,” Marine Corps veteran Bobby Lane stands on the sands of Avila Beach and points out at the Pacific Ocean.

“I died in that spot and I was reborn a different person,” Lane says. “Just straight out is where I caught my first wave. That’s the day that the Bobby you are talking to now came alive.”

Lane, an Iraq War veteran who suffered two traumatic brain injuries when his platoon was hit by five roadside bombs, is the main subject in “Resurface,” a mini-documentary that explores the devastating effects of combat trauma and PTSD, as well as the potential healing effects of surfing.

The film is set to be screened at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival on March 18.

“We just really believe in the power of other kinds of therapy and other kinds of healing, and surfing is a great example of that,” said Josh Izenberg, one of the film’s producers. “We just want people to start thinking along those lines and sort of start looking out into the world for other ways to think about healing and recovery.”

Set largely against the backdrop of San Luis Obispo County, “Resurface” takes a look at two groups using surf therapy to help military veterans cope with mental health issues. One of those groups is Operation Surf, a nonprofit led by big-wave surfer and county resident Van Curaza, a man who has turned his past struggles into a drive to help veterans.

“Going through my rehab, I realized how surfing helped me, and that’s why I started my nonprofit,” Curaza said while sitting in his Avila Beach office last week. “I recognized how surfing helped me as a young kid, a teenager, an adult, a drug addict.”

After getting sober and starting Van Curaza Surf School, Curaza had the idea for a nonprofit called Amazing Surf Adventures. The goal was to give underserved youths a chance to experience surfing.

Curaza then worked with Amp Surf, a surf clinic for disabled veterans, before setting out on his own to start Operation Surf in 2009 under the Amazing Surf umbrella. Since then, Curaza estimates more than 300 veterans have completed his seven-day program.

“I’m here to teach you how to surf, but what happens, this opportunity comes where they just feel comfortable with us and they just go, ‘blah,’ ” Curaza said. “And what happens when you go ‘blah’ … you are relieved.”

Curaza, 54, works with veterans from all backgrounds, including double amputees who have never touched a surfboard.

“What I focus on is what you can do, not what you can’t do,” Curaza said. “Not what you have or don’t have, but what it takes to ride a wave, catch a wave and ride a surfboard. They go off and catch a wave on Day 1. Right away, they just did something they thought they couldn’t do. It’s physical and spiritual. There is a certain healing aspect being in and around water.”

“(Curaza) went through a tough time and used helping other people to sort of pull himself out of it,” said Wynn Padula, a co-producer on “Resurface.” “In a way he has a lot in common with the vets, even though it’s from a different cause.”

Izenberg and Padula made their documentary debut with the award-winning “Slomo,” a New York Times mini-documentary about Dr. John Kitchin, who quit a medical career to pursue his passion: skating along the boardwalk of San Diego’s Pacific Beach.

In Lane, the Marine Corps veteran, Izenberg and Padula felt they found another perfect subject to show how alternative forms of therapy can be effective.

“Bobby (Lane) embodied the quintessential story of what PTSD can do to somebody … and what surfing can do for somebody,” Izenberg said. “He was on the verge of committing suicide, he was going to try (Operation Surf) out and then kill himself. He was so affected by surfing that he decided he wanted to keep living, but not only that, decided that he wanted to keep surfing and working with Operation Surf and reaching out to other vets.”

An Operation Surf instructor, right, helps a veteran stand up on a surfboard during a 2016 event in Avila Beach. Operation Surf

Since the filming of “Resurface,” Curaza has become re-energized by a scientific study that backs what he has always known. The study, conducted over two years by Air Force veteran and licensed therapist Russell Crawford, talked to participants of Operation Surf before and after the event. He found that they showed an improvement in self-efficacy.

“It shows that what we do works,” Curaza said. “When we can create a positive tool to process pain, guilt, remorse, shame, whatever, instead of drugs, alcohol, prescription pills, anger … we got a chance.”

Operation Surf was also featured in a special on ESPN in November. Curaza said the increased notoriety has been positive in shedding light on what those suffering from PTSD and combat trauma endure.

“It is helping us get exposed more, but it’s also exposing a weakness. We are understaffed. We are three people, and our whole goal is to raise money,” said Curaza, adding that he doesn’t take a salary from Operation Surf, only from the surf lesson portion of his surf school.

But he doesn’t plan to slow down. He hopes to one day open a surf institute that helps people deal with multiple forms of mental health struggles, not just PTSD, through watersports. And seeing what surfing can accomplish with the veterans he has worked with has helped Curaza realize his calling.

“I’m proud of it because it makes me feel good, but it’s really hard when people say ‘you saved my life,’ ” Curaza said. “How do you take that comment lightly when all I am doing is just trying to give back and help somebody? When those comments come from those guys that ‘You saved my life, and I will do anything for you,’ how could you ever quit?”

Travis Gibson: 805-781-7993, @TravisDgibson