A new documentary follows the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation’s use of surfing as a form of therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD.
- Written byStefan Slater
When Scott Stillman, a San Francisco-based documentary film producer, started surfing regularly three years ago, he noticed that the sport had a positive impact on his daily outlook. “It helped me to let go of my worries, and I had a relaxed focus as I went about my work,” he says. “I was blown away on how it impacted my life.” Scott notes that he immediately delved into both surf cinema and surf writing heavily, and he began working with documentary director Josh Izenberg to drum up some ideas for a surf-themed documentary.
Josh is the co-director of Slomo, an award-winning documentary about a neurologist named Dr. John Kitchin (aka Slomo) who gave up his career to move to Pacific Beach and explore his passion: rollerblading.
Skating transformed the doctor’s life. It boosted his sense of self, and as Slomo himself notes, there was also a chance that the act of skating affected him in a positive psychological sense.
“I’m interested in mental health issues in general,” says Josh. “And I’m also interested in ways of doing things that are against the societal narrative.”
During a screening for Slomo, Josh spoke about Dr. Kitchin’s thoughts about the possible psychological benefits of activities like skating. An audience member told him that some health organizations were starting to use surfing for rehabilitation.
That concept, coupled with Scott’s newfound love of surfing, helped give rise to the documentary team’s newest film, Resurface. Set to premiere early 2016, the documentary examines how organizations like the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation and Operation Surf are using surfing as a form of therapy for veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Josh says that, traditionally, the medical community tends to look at cognitive therapy and medication as being the primary means of treating mental health issues. “But there’s been more information that’s come out recently that certain physical activities are effective at changing our neurology and psychology,” he says. “I think this is a really interesting opportunity to explore and to open people’s minds about how we deal with mental health.”
Aside from interviewing veterans who’ve had their lives changed for the better by surfing, Josh and his team also spent a great deal of time following the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation here in the South Bay, highlighting the benefits of their ocean therapy program for veterans.
“The mission of the foundation, when working with veterans, is to use surfing as a catalyst for enhanced self-confidence, self-efficacy and their belief in looking ahead,” says Carly Rogers.
Back in 2003, during her time at the University of Southern California as a graduate student, Carly developed the Ocean Therapy program. This specialized program, which the foundation uses, involves teaching soldiers how to surf and then encourages group discussions in between sessions.
“We have this analogy in surfing that if you look at your feet you will fall, so you have to look up and forward,” says Carly. Many of the veterans who try the program have never surfed before, but Carly uses that as an opportunity for them to try something new in a safe, fun environment.
In His Words
Bobby Lane is a 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran who sought out Operation Surf to learn how to surf.
Why did you want to learn how to surf?
“It was the one thing that I’d always wanted to do. I’ve been drawn to the ocean and surfing for a long time since I was kid. I grew up skating. So I saw it as an opportunity. It was the biggest thing on my bucket list to do. I was actually going to check surfing off my bucket list, and after that I was going to go home and commit suicide. When I came out here and after I caught my first wave, it changed my life.”
What were your expectations?
“My expectation for coming out here was just to surf and catch a few waves. I didn’t have any expectations. But the camaraderie that developed and the relationships that I made—I didn’t know that my life would change like that.”
What was it like being out in the water that first time?
“Being out in the water, it was special. When I went out in the water and caught my first wave, it made the bad part of me die in a way. It gave me a chance to be reborn and have a second chance. I could sit out in the water and just feel the water. It’s the closest place where I feel like myself. It’s really special for me. I had an instructor who was a Marine, and being out there with other guys—it’s positive, we understand each other and we can surf together. To have that feeling of having a bond, one that’s similar to combat, you grow close to the guys you are with .”
Some surf therapy groups encourage group discussions. Were you involved with group discussions during that first session, and did you find them helpful?
“The thing was, my first trip when I came out, they didn’t need to . After surfing we got together, and we all just sort of started opening up naturally and talking about whatever was on our minds. It was therapeutic. I really enjoy just being able to be myself and cut loose and not having an agenda. I opened up. I created a bond with a lot of the guys through surf, and it gives us a chance to talk … sit around the dinner table and talk.”
The surf sessions usually involve a dozen or so veterans, and volunteers help teach and guide the soldiers in the surf. During the discussions, Carly encourages the veterans to connect their time in the water with their lives as a whole.
“OK, you stood up on the wave, so how can this fit in with the rest of your life? How can this relate to a new job interview? Or having more confidence?”
As Scott notes, the veterans come from different military branches and from all walks of life. He adds that the act of surfing often helps the soldiers let go of whatever they’re processing. Veterans may be quiet before surfing, but after standing up on a wave they usually open up.
“I was blown away by the power of being out in the water,” says Scott. “It was like a barrier was being broken down.”
Mike Shurley, a volunteer instructor with the foundation, helps teach the veterans how to surf. A Vietnam veteran, Mike says that he can relate to many of the soldiers who seek out the foundation for guidance.
Mike notes that, after completing his tour of duty in the late ‘60s, he thought that when he returned home, “I would be given a hero’s welcome.” Due to the anti-war movement, his superiors told him the transition might be difficult.
“I came home, feeling good about my service, and we were told that we were better off not wearing our uniforms,” he said. Mike says he tried to recreate the rush of combat through drugs and “risky behavior.”
Mike had surfed when he was younger, but it wasn’t until the early ‘80s that he returned to the sport. Once he did, “I got the rush I wanted,” he says, adding that “ kept me from getting mired down in my dreams.”
In 2010 Mike started volunteering with the foundation. He points out that, aside from helping veterans explore a new, exciting activity, the foundation also adds an element of camaraderie. He says the ocean therapy program shows veterans that others—including civilians—care about their well-being.
“ helps them to build trust; it provides that adrenaline rush and it provides another brotherhood. You’ll hear Carly say that once you’re apart of the environment or the surfing community, you’re accepted. I’ve seen those changes.”
Josh hopes that Resurface will help spread awareness about the benefits of surf therapy. “It’s one thing to hear about it, and another to see it. It was powerful to witness, and that’s what we want to do with the film.”
Both Josh and Scott are quick to add that surfing shouldn’t be viewed as some panacea for all mental health issues. Cognitive therapy and medication are absolutely crucial for treating mental health illnesses.
“That’s not to say that surfing is a magic bullet,” says Scott. However, they both agree that surf therapy could be used as a sort of complementary treatment—something to be used in conjunction with more traditional treatments. They’ve seen the good that surf therapy can do, and they hope that Resurface will highlight that good to the world.