NEWPORT — Thomas “Tommy” Counihan IV is a military veteran who lost the lower portion of one leg while serving in Afghanistan. But if you were to encounter him today, you wouldn’t exactly describe him as “disabled.”
Counihan was in Newport on Monday, July 20, to spend some time with his friend, Dan Hasselschwert, the owner of Ossies Surf Shop. The two of them hit the waves at Newport’s Agate Beach, and it was apparent that Counihan was in his element. In fact, he won the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships last year and will be defending his title in early September.
“Surfing was one of those things that I did as a kid because it was the cool thing to do, it was really fun. I’d go skip school with my friends, and everyone knew I was a surfer, and I like that,” Counihan said. “And then after I joined the military, I didn’t get to surf very much, unless I was on leave.”
While serving in Afghanistan as a combat engineer with the U.S, Army, Counihan’s job was to look for roadside bombs. “We found one the wrong way one day,” he said. “As a result of the IED blast, they ended up amputating my leg three weeks later.” That was in 2011, just a couple of weeks before his 21st birthday. He remembers not being able to envision what his life might look like going forward.
“I thought I had lost everything. I was planning on killing myself,” he said. “I was really depressed, (and) I didn’t like where things were going.”
But then Counihan reconnected with his earlier passion. “I went surfing again for the first time,” he said. “Somebody dragged me to the beach, made me go surfing with them, and I’ll be forever grateful for that because in that one wave, that one movement, it saved my life. It changed my life for the better, and it gave me something to work towards. I want to be a good surfer again.”
And so, despite his amputation, Counihan started hitting the waves, pushing his boundaries like he did when he was a kid. “It got to the point where, now with amputation, I surf just as good, if not better, than when I was a teenager. And it gives me all of my passion and all of my love for life. It makes me want to try other things. It makes me want to push my boundaries and go out and try harder so I can do better at surfing.”
For Counihan, pushing those boundaries includes taking part in activities other than surfing. “All of these things start to translate,” he said. “So I like to skateboard more, I like to go snowboarding more. I learned how to paraglide, and then from there, I learned how to speed-fly. All these high-action, adrenaline-inducing sports were just pushing me forward as an individual and helped teach me what my life’s purpose is, and it’s just to spread the ‘stoke.’ I just want to go out and see other people succeed and help them succeed the way that I have, even if it’s in different sports or different areas of their life.”
As a way of sharing his experience with other disabled veterans, Counihan takes part in a program called AmpSurf, whose mission is to “promote, inspire, educate and rehabilitate all people with disabilities and their families through adaptive surf therapy and other outdoor activities,” according to the nonprofit’s website.
“This is my second year with AmpSurf, but I’ve been involved with other nonprofits like Operation Surf in California and Access Surf when I lived in Hawaii. I was an instructor for Access Surf for two years. I did two events a month.” He originally tried to start his own nonprofit but realized there’s a bit of competition among them, “so I decided to dedicate my time and energy to already existing nonprofits that I like what they’re doing,” he said.
And while he was in Newport, he shared his testimony through video, at the request of the Department of Veteran Affairs in Salem. That was coordinated by Hasselschwert, owner of Ossies.
“Jamie Lusk is a psychologist at the Salem Vet Center, the Department of Veteran Affairs,” Hasselschwert said. “She is a surfer, and she basically put together a program in the past, and we were involved with that, where she’s bringing veterans and trying to introduce them to surfing.”
But that program was put on hold this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “She reached out to me this year and said, ‘Hey, we’re really bummed that we can’t do the group lessons, but could you make a video to inspire the veterans for when they’re able to do this in the future,’” Hasselschwert said.
Counihan is from Palm Beach, but he has been traveling all over the United States in a school bus for the last couple of years. Hasselschwert heard he would be in Coos Bay this weekend for an adaptive surf clinic with AmpSurf, and when Counihan was asked if he would be willing to be a part of the video project, he didn’t hesitate. “He said, ‘Of course,’” recalled Hasselschwert.
Counihan said veterans taking part in the AmpSurf program may not end up embracing surfing the way he has, but that isn’t really the point. When he takes somebody out surfing for the very first time, they may be nervous, struggling on the beach before they ever get to the water. “I take them out in the water, and they finally get to stand up a couple of times, and it just clicks for them,” he said. “You see that light turn on, and you can just see an immediate difference in their face and how happy they are to be alive in that moment.
“And even if it isn’t surfing, they go out and they did this surfing thing and tried to figure out something they never thought they were ever going to be able to do,” he added. “And so that light turns on in their eyes … and now they want to go home and do better; ‘Maybe I can go back to school. Maybe I can put the bottle down. Maybe I can be a better father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife. Make the effort.’”
But even though he can point the way, Counihan said it is up to the individuals themselves to take those first steps. “What I tell everybody when I’m at these events is that those who say they can and those who say they can’t are both right. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. I can only show you the way, but you have to put in the work.”