Soldiers who lost limbs learn to surf


Associated Press Writer

As a child of 1970s California, Derek McGinnis felt that riding waves was like a birthright, and losing his left leg to a suicide bomber in Iraq wasn't going to stop him from surfing again.

So, he rallied nearly a dozen other wounded-in-action amputees he met in a military hospital and brought them to one of California's last old-fashioned beach towns.

For some of them, the roiling ocean was a second home. The closest others had come to riding waves were movies.

McGinnis brought determination.

"I have a board and (have to) make sure I keep on using it," said McGinnis, 28, a Navy petty officer and medic who began surfing at 10 in Northern California. "I said 'Man, I've got to be able to do it. It's possible.'"

So there he stood one foggy August morning, with an ear-to-ear grin and wearing a brand new wet suit.

With him on the beach was Tim Brumley, who had never handled a surfboard before though he looked the part with his short-cropped, blond hair. The former paratrooper, who lost a leg in

Afghanistan last year, had never even seen the Pacific, save for a fleeting glimpse when he visited San Francisco as a kid.

However, as a teenager in New Mexico, Brumley saw a classic flick with some of the best surfing ever committed to film.

"When I saw 'Point Break' I said, 'That's it! I want to surf!'" declared the 26-year-old veteran of the Army Airborne Infantry as he pounded down beers and told war stories at a seaside bar the night before his first lesson.

Nearly 200 miles north of Los Angeles, Pismo Beach is perhaps most famous to tourists for its clams and funny name. To surfers, Pismo Beach means smooth waves, mild weather and pure white beaches more likely to yield a sand dollar than a rock. It is one of a vanishing breed of surfside towns, a place where die-hards still park beat-up RVs for free right next to the sand and head to the waves.

Better yet for McGinnis and friends, it's also the home turf of champion surfer Rodney Roller. He lost a leg in a forklift accident 16 years ago, but returned to the water lugging a 25-pound wooden limb that could withstand corrosive salt water.

Now the 39-year-old Roller teaches other amputees. After McGinnis tracked him down, he agreed to instruct the military men for free, figuring it was payback for all the people who helped him get back in the water.

McGinnis met most of his crew at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Houston, Texas, where he was recovering after a suicide bomber crashed an explosives-laden car into his ambulance two years ago. Money for the trip was raised by Operation Comfort, a San Antonio-based organization that helps wounded veterans rebuild their lives.

Some members of the group had lost an arm to the war. Former Army Sgt. Chang Wong, 24, lost both legs when his tank ran over an explosive. Jesse Schertz, a 22-year-old retired Marine corporal from Peoria, Ill., was severely burned and lost a leg.

"It's going to be a blast," McGinnis promised them. "It will show you can achieve anything. No matter what, you can overcome."

His immediate goal was to stand up on his board within 30 minutes of hitting the water.

During a brief demonstration on shore, novices including Brumley, Schertz and Wong were shown how to get on a board and keep their balance.

They were taught how to paddle — "one arm at a time" as the instructor said.

"I've only got one arm, dude," shouted Michael Owens, drawing laughter. The 22-year-old ex-Marine lost his other arm when his convoy was ambushed in Iraq.

In their first few minutes on the water, some missed waves, some boards capsized and some rocketed away, spilling their riders.

Then a cheer rose as McGinnis met his goal with a nice ride 30 minutes into the day.

The cheers continued as Owens began cruising with his one-arm paddle technique.

Beyond the breakers, a small herd of curious sea lions watched briefly, and a pair of dolphins leaped majestically out of the water.

There would be two more practice days; then the group had an informal competition. First prize, a surfboard donated by a manufacturer, went to Andy Soule, a double amputee who managed a wave-riding handstand.

Although Brumley didn't win, just being there was satisfaction enough.

"I'm thinking about telling my wife, telling her we're moving out here to Cali," Brumley, exhausted but exhilarated, said as he waded to shore for a rest. "Just surf every day for the rest of my life. It wouldn't be bad, you know."

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