‘You get serenity’: Wounded vets transformed through power of surfing

San Luis Obispo native Lance Iunker was riding in a U.S. Army truck in Iraq in 2007 transporting detainees and escaping a hostile zone at dawn when the vehicle lost control and veered through a guard rail, crashing down a 50-foot embankment.

That day changed Iunker’s life immeasurably, he said.

Not only did he suffer four broken vertebrae, chest injuries and a sliced ear that was “dangling” and had to be sown back on, he has lingering memories of the wreck that killed seven fellow soldiers and injured 11.

But Iunker has found peace through Operation Surf, an organization operated by the Avila Beach-based nonprofit Amazing Surf Adventures dedicated to helping veterans wounded physically and psychologically.

“I brought my best friend from the Army out here, who was in the same crash, to try this out because it has helped me so much,” Iunker said. “We’re reconnecting and making new memories.”

Iunker was among a group of veterans participating in the program this week, which offers week-long surf training and bonding experiences for vets from around the country. They convened in Avila Beach on Thursday to learn on small waves.

The vets also stayed at the Dolphin Bay Inn and receive donated meals from local restaurants such as Madonna Inn and Cafe Roma.

Operation Surf founder and program director Van Curaza of Operation Surf credits surfing for helping him overcome drug addiction and wanted to help others. The program is now in its 10th year.

Local news matters

We rely on readers like you more than ever before to support us as we tell stories about the people and issues important to SLO County readers.

Subscribe to The Tribune today for just 99 cents for your first month — and help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

Wounded veterans participating include amputees and those with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

“What I’ve learned is that when you’re out in the water, you’re 100 percent focused on what you’re doing,” Curaza said. “All other thoughts go away. You get serenity, and you’re able to relax.”

Richard Brendle, left, and Lance Iunker, who served together in Iraq, ride a wave together in Avila Beach during Operation Surf, a week-long program for wounded-veterans and active-duty military. Joe Johnston

Curaza said scientific research conducted over two years by Air Force veteran and licensed therapist Russell Crawford has backed up what he has thought all along, that surfing relieves stress, prevents depression and increases self-efficacy. His program now operates in Huntington Beach, Santa Cruz, SLO County and the UK.

This years group includes about 25 veterans, of which 15 are new and the rest either returning or helping with surfing instruction.

Program participant Kyle Kelly, 34, of Northeast Texas, lost part of his right leg in Iraq in 2007 from an improvised explosive device. Kelly said he’d never considered surfing until he learned of Operation Surf through the Center for the Intrepid, a rehab facility in San Antonio.

A participant rides the surf in Avila Beach during Operation Surf, a week-long program for wounded-veterans and active-duty military. Joe Johnston

Wearing a prosthetic, Kelly has found comfort in being able to share his pain with fellow vets through the multiple events he has attended. He said the psychological challenges he has faced have outweighed the physical.

“There’s something about being able to talk to all these guys who have been through PTSD themselves that really helps,” Kelly said. “And no pun intended, from the first day I surfed, my whole perception and attitude changed and (negative thoughts) washed away.”

Richard Brendle of St. Louis, Iunker’s close friend, is into his second year of surfing.

“All I’ve talked about for the past year is surfing,” Brendle said. “I just had my fourth baby, but my wife knows how much this means to me, and she was amazing about it and provided the encouragement and support to allow me to be here.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune