Veterans’ champion: Co-founder of AmpSurf widening his impact

Dana Cummings, co-founder of AmpSurf, directs surfers and volunteers during Operation Restoration at Pismo Beach on Saturday. The program puts disabled people on surf boards and into the waves.
Dana Cummings, co-founder of AmpSurf, directs surfers and volunteers during Operation Restoration at Pismo Beach on Saturday. The program puts disabled people on surf boards and into the waves. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Dana Cummings is aware of the irony.

After serving two tours of combat duty in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the former Marine lost a leg as a civilian in California.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Did you lose your leg in the service?’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘No — I lost it right here, on the 101.’ ”

While the car accident forever disabled him, it positively changed his life. Since that 2002 incident, Cummings has taken up surfing, launched a camp to teach other disabled people to surf, accepted a job as the county’s Veterans Services officer and appeared in a major motion picture.

“Honestly, looking back, everything happens for a reason,” said Cummings, of Creston, who is teaching 30 disabled people to surf in Pismo Beach this weekend. “I really believe that.”

Life-changing accident

Although he has three brothers who served in the military, Cummings, who grew up in rural Maine, didn’t plan to enter the service. An offensive and defensive tackle in high school, he was offered a partial scholarship to New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University. But as high school ended, Cummings knew he wasn’t ready for college. So he enlisted in the Marines, where he worked on aircraft.

“It was one of the best things I could have ever done,” he said. “It kept me from getting in trouble.”

Once he was out, school was easy by comparison. He graduated magna cum laude from Maine’s Thomas College with a degree in software engineering.

Cummings was working as a software engineer in the summer of 2002 when the accident happened. He was driving to his job at UCSB in his 1976 Volkswagen painted to look like the Mystery Machine — “My daughter was really into Scooby-Doo,” he explained — when a teenage driver in front of him slowed to make a U-turn on Highway 101 near Gaviota Pass. When the Volkswagen smashed into the back of the teen’s 1983 Saab, the VW’s front end smashed Cummings’ legs.

“I had broken my left leg in 17 places,” he said. “It had stripped all the flesh off my ankle on that side.”

The right foot was also injured, requiring eight or nine surgeries. But the left was more severe. While surgeons worked to put everything back together, within a couple of days, the foot began turning black. So surgeons had to amputate.

Despite experiencing the worst pain he’d ever felt (it didn’t help that his insurance company denied him rehabilitation), Cummings made it his goal to take up surfing as soon as he could.

“I didn’t want to be defined by the fact that I’ve got a missing leg,” said the 41-year-old father of five. “And I thought, if I can surf, then I won’t be this poor guy that lost his leg.”

Sharing ‘the stoke’

After losing his leg in August, Cummings was carrying a surfboard the following January, a prosthetic limb attached below his left knee. Like most beginning surfers, Cummings rode his first few waves on his belly. But that was enough to experience what jubilant surfers refer to as “the stoke.”

“To feel that rush of the wave pick me up — I was just blown away,” said Cummings, who had tried surfing before the injury but quit out of frustration. “And the next day I was able to stand up.”

It wasn’t long before he was conspiring with his surf teacher — Rodney Roller, another amputee — to launch a surf clinic for other people with disabilities.

“We did that first clinic in October of ’03, and AmpSurf was born,” Cummings said.

The goal of the nonprofit AmpSurf was simple: Show disabled people the therapeutic benefits of surfing by teaching them to ride waves.

While many AmpSurf participants are veterans, anyone with disabilities can participate. That has included people with missing limbs, brain injuries, blindness, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The first year, AmpSurf taught a dozen people. This year, with clinics in Southern California and on the East Coast, AmpSurf will teach 500.

Huge grins

Nate Smids, who lost a leg after a snowboarding accident, had read about AmpSurf before moving to the area to take a job at Atascadero State Hospital a couple of years ago. Soon after arriving on the Central Coast, the Canadian hooked up with AmpSurf for lessons.

Smids remembered the crowd watching as he caught his first ride.

“It was just exhilarating,” said the recreation therapist, who lives in Morro Bay. “Everyone is cheering for you as you’re standing up.”

A week later, he had his own surfboard. And not long after that, he was an AmpSurf volunteer, teaching others to surf.

Like Smids, Frank Schweizer of Los Osos is working AmpSurf’s Operation Restoration Camp in Pismo Beach this weekend. The former Marine, who has surfed most of his life, said working with AmpSurf has been life changing.

Usually, the surfers are timid and scared when they start, he said. But once they catch a wave, they almost always sport huge grins — something that leaves a lasting impression on volunteers.

“That change,” Schweizer said, “it hits you, man.”

While the participants are inspired by Cummings, whom they can relate to because of his disability, so too are those who volunteer with AmpSurf.

“Dana inspires you to be a better person,” Schweizer said. “He propels me to take on more things and be successful at them.”

Earning recognition

That quality has not gone unnoticed. For his efforts, Cummings was honored by CNN last year in a series of features on American heroes. Earlier this year, he was named Central Coast Veteran of the Year. And last month he was named Veterans Services officer, a position that will allow him to help even more veterans.

“At the core of what we’re supposed to do is help veterans get access to their benefits from the VA,” he said from his office, which features a surfboard signed by past AmpSurf clinic participants.

He also wants the office to be a conduit to other veterans groups and to let veterans discover all the services and discounts at their disposal.

“I want to really get the word out there because there’s a lot of vets that don’t know about us,” said Cummings, who said even he didn’t know about the office until he’d lived here about five years.

The office hasn’t had much recognition, but Cummings is a leader with ample experience in getting exposure. His AmpSurf organization has received press worldwide. (One of this weekend’s volunteers learned about it from her home in Germany.) And Cummings even managed to get a movie role, thanks to his AmpSurf work.

“I was doing a clinic down in Malibu a few years ago, and a lady walks up and says, ‘So, have you ever been in the movies?’ ” Cummings recalled.

When he said no, the woman replied, “Well, how would you feel about losing your leg on film?”

No problem, Cummings answered. “It’s already gone.”

A year later, he was called down to Southern California, where he would be cast in his movie debut — a feature starring Richard Dreyfuss, Elisabeth Shue and Jerry O’Connell.

“They had me play a sheriff’s deputy in ‘Piranha 3D,’ ” he said. “And my big scene is where a piranha chews off my leg and some of the other sheriffs help me.”