A few years ago Larry had his version of a rough day at the office. The burly Chicago native was perusing Baghdad for some of his missing coworkers when he took a fateful wrong step and heard a click. He had a brief instant to consider that the step he just took was a horrible mistake. We’ve all had that feeling at work, where we realize we’ve made a bone-headed move and are about to lose some business or get a scolding from our boss. Larry’s realization was different. In that instant, he knew that his young, totally intact body was about to be no more. He was having, as the kids’ book calls it, a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” The worst day ever.
Today, Larry had a great day. He went to the beach with his lovely wife Desiree and her parents, and they all went surfing, along with forty-eight of his fellow wounded soldiers and their families. The tide was too high, the wind was a nuisance, and the water was cold. Regardless, not a complaint was uttered all day. If you wanted complaining, you should have been here last weekend for the surf contest.
Today, Larry and Desiree playfully talked trash and tried to outdo one another in the surf, but it was all in fun. Desiree yelled, “Laying on top of that board, you look like a seal!” Larry responded, “You just mad cause I rode that wave longer than you.” Larry had indeed enjoyed a long ride, but he hadn’t stood up. He couldn’t. That click he’d heard at work was an explosive device, and he’d lost both legs and one of his hands, not to mention incurring a bevy of other injuries. Today, that didn’t matter. Today he was just a surfer.
For seven years, this day has been the highlight of my summer. I’ve marveled at the soldiers’ positive attitudes, camaraderie, and bravery. I’ve been amazed by their families’ dedication and support. I’ve been in awe of the team that spends so much of the year hammering out all of the critical details, and I’ve beamed as the best people in my town have shown up and given their donations, their expertise, and their Saturdays to make it all happen.
Of whatever I’ve accomplished in my life, I’m most proud of this day, the Wave Warriors Surf Camp, of getting the ball rolling with just fourteen warriors at Camp Lejeune the first year, and of having the privilege of passing the surfing torch to hundreds of injured servicemen and women since then, hundreds of Larry’s and Desiree’s. Nobody earns a penny from the event, and as far as I can tell everyone leaves with a smile. The warriors see that their disabilities cannot define them, and we more inspiration than a million Oprah episodes could provide.
Aside from our little camp at the jetty, the city is having its annual Patriotic Festival, a grand weekend of concerts, airshows, and other military-themed celebrations. For the festival, the military has parked a massive, ten million dollar hovercraft on the beach in front of the hotel that is housing the warriors. After dinner, I walked down to check it out, and I immediately felt like a little kid. The thing travels at sixty knots and can pull up to any beach loaded with assault vehicles ready to annhilate anything standing in its way. Freaking cool.
As I stepped off the hovercraft, the cool factor vanished. There, on the handicapped ramp, sat one of our warriors, an amputee even more fucked up than Larry, admiring the craft from his wheelchair. The sobering reality of war was not lost on me, and as I stood for a few moments I saw that others felt the same way. Kids who had swarmed the hovercraft like it was a giant toy were walking off and seeing what I had just seen, and their wide eyes grew even wider.
I plan to take my grom down to check it out tomorrow. It’s too cool not to. Hopefully there are some warriors around, because I want him to see that there’s nothing cool about war.
Please visit our site, http://www.wavewarriorssurfcamp.org, and give.
On a lighter note, I hucked Larry’s mother-in-law, Monique, into a wave and she rode it halfway in. I needed to get in to help her back out, and there was another wave coming. I figured the quickest way to get to her was to bodysurf in. I took a couple big strokes, the wave started to lift me up, and I went, “Oh shit, I can’t do this!” and pulled through the back at the last second. Close call.
All images courtesy of Eddie Compo and The Wildlyfe