An Australia-first initiative to help heal the wounds of defence personnel suffering from PTSD through surfing has received national funding.
In fact, so impressed was the Department of Veterans Affairs with the program that it has awarded a grant of $280,686 under the 2019-20 Supporting Younger Veterans (SYV) grants program.
The Defence Surf Therapy Program is the brainchild of former big wave professional surfer and Gerringong Surf School owner, Rusty Moran, who has partnered with former Gerringong RSL sub-branch president and former army officer Glenn Kolomeitz.
The Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group, run out of Nowra, will provide the governance of the program, with the funding to assist with developing and running a tailored surf therapy program for younger veterans with mental health issues.
The SYV program supports the needs of younger veterans as they leave the Australian Defence Force and integrate back into civilian life, with all the challenges that accompany that unique transition.
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Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group chairman Rick Meehan and vice-chairman Fred Campbell have welcomed the funding.
"This is great news for veterans battling PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)," Mr Meehan said.
"This will allow the program to be run as a pilot for 12-months and be evaluated with the hope to make it a permanent."
This is great news for veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group chairman Rick Meehan
They paid credit to Rusty Moran and Glenn Kolomeitz for their drive to get the program up and running.
"Glenn and Rusty have been instrumental in getting the surfing program up and running," Mr Meehan said.
"This is one of many programs we [Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group] is involved in or runs," Mr Campbell said.
"We are continuing our annual Digger Day, identifying unmarked World War I diggers' graves within the Nowra Cemetery with Robyn Florance and our popular veterans' walks," Mr Meehan said.
The pilot will be based on a US program called "Operation Surf".
In 2014, Carly Rogers published a clinical surf therapy study which demonstrated significant improvements in PTSD scores in 14 US Marines.
The programs have now received full US Military backing as a non-pharmalogical, outdoor-based therapy to heal PTSD.
The Australian program will be based on the South Coast and will run on the northern end of Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa.
Over 10 weeks up to 70 veterans will be taught how to surf, will be connected with other sufferers and learn how to practise mindfulness.
Mr Campbell said the program would not only be of great benefit to the veterans who take part but also a boon for the South Coast.
"Money will be spent and invested locally," he said.
"This will be a big boost for the Shoalhaven and South Coast," Mr Meehan said.
"It will help local businesses and help veterans with PTSD.
"We're so grateful to the Minister for Veterans Affairs Darren Chester for this wonderful grant and giving us the opportunity to support our veterans and local community."
And it's not just local veterans who will gain benefit, with the program to be open to veterans around the country.
"We'll also be able to access what the US have already got up and running," Mr Meehan said.
The aim is to have seven intakes of 10 veterans at a time, who will either undertake an intense course or a weekly course.
Lessons will be an hour and a half to two hours long, depending on the veterans, with psychology services also part of the program including follow ups six and 12 months later.
"DVA want a clinical study on this, so we will be able to provide data - we're hoping to join with University of Wollongong to make that happen," Mr Meehan said.
"To provide a proof of concept report," Mr Campbell said.
The hope is that will lead to further funding on a yearly basis to make it an ongoing program.
"DVA is looking at it, if we can help veterans through this program it will take the heat off their bigger budget and reduce their costs," Mr Meehan said.
The funding will also allow brand new equipment, complete with the program's branding, to be purchased.
Mr Meehan said it is hard to say how many veterans actually suffer from PTSD.
"We know that PTSD is a major issue with veterans in the country," he said.
"It's higher than the general population, we know that for a fact. Veterans also have a higher suicide rate compared to the general population."
We had vets turn up and you could see there were issues but when they came out of the water they were smiling - they loved it - the interaction was brilliant.Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group vice-chairman Fred Campbell
As for a proposed starting date, like many things, it's dependent on COVID-19.
"We're hoping for October or towards the end of the year depending on the coronavirus," Mr Campbell said.
Already three free events for veterans to experience the program were held prior to last Christmas - two at Gerroa which attracted 20 to 30 people at each day, and a further event at Cronulla.
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"We had vets turn up and you could see there were issues but when they came out of the water they were smiling - they loved it - the interaction was brilliant," Mr Campbell said.
"Hopefully they can take it forward for the rest of their lives and if they are feeling down or blue they can grab a mate and go and have a surf," Mr Meehan said.
Speaking previously Mr Moran said there were many benefits to the program.
"Sufferers can come together, talk to people in the same situation who can relate to their trauma and hopefully not feel so alone," Mr Moran said.
"While waiting for waves, surfers open up and talk about deeper things, in the same way as soldiers do during deployment.
"Then once riding a wave, they feel the adrenaline rush, which they crave.
"Surfing puts us in a flow state, where we are enveloped in the present moment, so there is no space for regretting past events or anxiety for the future.
"If we can help veterans learn practices to clear their mind of negative thoughts, they can be more present off the board then hopefully they can incorporate it into their civilian life routine.
If we can help veterans learn practices to clear their mind of negative thoughts, they can be more present off the board then hopefully they can incorporate it into their civilian life routine.Former big wave professional surfer and Gerringong Surf School owner, Rusty Moran
"That is not to mention the help benefits of being out in the sun and getting exercise in the big blue gym of the ocean."
For Mr Moran, the surf therapy program for veterans is deeply personal. He has had his own battles with mental health.
"My Dad is a Department of Veterans Affairs Gold Card Holder who served in World War II with his two brothers," he said. "He came back with PTSD and there was no program to help him. So he and his brothers turned to alcohol to self medicate."
Mr Kolomeitz said the program was a tangible initiative aimed at addressing the scourge of PTSD among the veteran and first-responder community.
"Rusty's natural compassion and dedication and his emphasis on clinical outcomes and research-based initiatives makes him the ideal person to run this program for our brothers and sisters who have served," he said.
If you're interested in getting involved in the program contact Rusty Moran at Gerringong Surf School on 0414 555 306.
For support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511.