Wounded warriors hit the beach

Surfboards and kayaks reconnect war veterans with the civilian world. (Photo by Rick Beasley)

NEWPORT — War may be hell, but the amphibious maneuvers going on at Agate Beach are designed to alleviate the effects of battle.

The Salem Vet Center is using surfboards and kayaks to reconnect traumatized war veterans with the civilian world, a difficult gap to bridge for many service members exposed to the tension and bloodshed of combat. On April 5, 15 veterans slipped into wetsuits and hoisted longboards donated by Ossie’s Surf Shop in the first of two restorative events at Agate Beach.

“Research supports the benefits of exercise and community in boosting mental health, and with surfing they get both,” asserted Jamie Lusk, a former U.S. Navy officer who is now a psychologist with the Veteran’s Administration. “This is a chance for veterans to interact in a supportive community and experience the challenge and joy of surfing.”

Devin Whitaker, another U.S. Navy veteran who served for three years as a corpsman with the U.S. Marines, recovered from the shock of combat by getting a college degree in English and literature. He found his true calling, however, in helping fellow vets as the face of the Lincoln County Veterans Service Office.

“Veterans find it easy to avoid social events, parties and gatherings,” explained Whitaker, who helps local vets negotiate the Veterans Administration bureaucracy by filing disability claims and doing the paperwork for VA benefits. “Because of their experiences, it’s easy to feel different and more difficult to integrate. This is a way to bring veterans out of their shell.”

Whitaker’s local office handles about current 3,800 clients, though he believes thousands more live in Lincoln County. He described the VA as “Mt Everest,” with his role as a “sherpa” to guide vets through the process.

Additional support for the event came from American Legion Post 116, which provided lunch, and the Rogue Bayfront Public House, which held a dinner for the veterans afterwards. Dan Hasselschwert of Ossie’s earned the praise of organizers for volunteering two staff instructors and providing all the equipment.

“They had a blast,” he commented. “We owe them a lot. It’s the least we could do.”

The Vet Center will hold another surf therapy day May 3.

For more information, call the Salem Vet Center at 503-362-9911.


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