Wounded Warrior Project, Oceans of Hope Foundation organize adapted surfing event for disabled veterans in NSB
NEW SMYRNA BEACH â Gary Garcia got on that board and started paddling.
He felt the water splash against his face and the hot sun on his back. He had a crew of guys helping along.
Garcia found the right balance Sunday morningÂ â and not just on his surfboard.
Sunday’s second-annual adapted surfing outing with the Wounded Warrior Project and the Oceans of Hope Foundation gave him and others like him an opportunity to clear his mind, enjoy nature, go on vacation with his family and be himself again. Garcia was one of at least three-dozen wounded military veterans who took part in the event at Esther Street Park in New Smryna Beach.
“It gave me a chance to get out of my shell and be around other people and really test myself basically,” Garcia said. “Today was everything I expected. There was a lot of camaraderie and encouragement. I got a sense of accomplishment.”
Garcia, 52, of Tampa, was accompanied by his wife and two children. While a first sergeant in the U.S. Army, he was wounded in 2004 during a tour in Iraq.
Originally from Colorado, Garcia liked the idea of being in the water that featured waves. The ocean was mild Sunday, which made it perfect for those getting on a surfboard for the first time.
Also among the Wounded Warrior surfers was Ben Hart, 41, of Bradenton.
He was catching his breath late in the morning. He sat on a lawn chair under a tent next to his wife, who looked happy that he was happy.
Hart was surprised at how physically taxing surfing can be, but he loved every second of being on the water, especially whenever he caught a wave.
“It’s actually really fun,” Hart said. “Learning how to balance yourself is tough, but once you get that first wave, it really helps balance you out.”
Hart, like Garcia, served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was injured two separate times â once in 2004 and again in 2005.
He spends most of his days at home while his wife, Yolanda Hart, goes to work. She knew Sunday’s event would be good for her husband because he could socialize and be active.
“I love to see him get out and doing things,” she said. “When I heard about it, I told him, ‘Go baby, have fun.'”
Ben Hart joked about how much his wife wants him to get out of the house more. He smiled, leaned back in his chair and took another long look at the ocean. The same group who coached him on his surfboard was helping another man paddle out to where the waves begin to peak.
“They get us out of our comfort zone,” Hart said of the Wounded Warrior Project. “They get us to try new stuff.”
Bill Hannigan, 47, an Army veteran, is an adaptive sports specialist with the nonprofit organization. He helped organize Sunday’s event.
“This gives opportunities to help you find out what you can do as opposed to what you can’t do,” said Hannigan, 47, who lost the use of his legs following a motorcycle crash in 1995. The crash happened four months after his discharge from the Army.
Today, he still rides a trike. He still gets to feel the wind hit his face while rolling down the highway. That’s the whole point of the Wounded Warrior Project, he said. It helps people regain their spirit by helping them regain the confidence to do the activities they loved the most. It also urges others to attempt something they’ve been too afraid to try.
Oceans of Hope was co-founded by Danny Paltjon, 41, a water enthusiast who became a quadriplegic after suffering a spinal injury from a head-first slide during a softball game 14 years ago.
In 2006, three years after his accident, his family and friends were worried about him and his state of mind. They picked him up and carried him out to the ocean. They wanted to jog his memory â remind him of the sights and sounds and feelings that gave him so much joy during so much of his life. It was the best medicine for him.
“Just the taste of that water and being out there, that made such a difference in my life,” Paltjon said. “There’s nothing like the ocean.”
Oceans of Hope was born largely because of what Paltjon’s friends and family did for him on that day.
On Sunday, Garcia had a similar experience. Being in the water rejuvenated him. When he heard Paltjon’s story, he seemed to get a sense of what went through his mind 12 years ago.
“That’s exactly how I felt today,” Garcia said.