The first group of surfers from the Veteran Surf Project have graduated from their 10-week learn to surf course.
Held each Wednesday and Saturday at Seven Mile Beach, Gerroa, the free 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 to get the program off the ground.
The Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group is providing the charitable governance of the program, which has been backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs with grant funding under the 2019-20 Supporting Younger Veterans (SYV) grants program.https://www.southcoastregister.com.au/story/7122120/initial-veterans-surf-program-experience-proves-a-hit/
Western Sydney University has been contracted to study the scientific benefits of surfing on those suffering from PTSD and depression, and in a world first, measure how long those benefits might remain for participants who continue surfing after the program compared to those who do not continue.
Rick Meehan, who had never surfed prior to taking up the course, said the benefits have been "incredible".
"The whole course has been absolutely unbelievable," he said.
"I've noticed a real change in my mental health and overall well being.
"Surfing and being out on the water is definitely therapeutic, both mentally and physically.
"It's very soothing and good for the mind and makes me feel refreshed for the whole day."
He says he has also noticed a marked change, particularly, in his sleeping habits.
The feeling when you catch a wave for the first time is incredible and then when you manage to stand up it's amazing - pure satisfaction. It's almost impossible to describe. Just so exhilarating.Veteran Surf Project graduate Rick Meehan
"For years, I would wake a number of times a night and find I had destroyed the bedsheets and the doona but then the morning after my fifth session my wife noticed I hadn't fought the bed sheets.
"A remarkable change not only for me but for my wife as well. She's getting the best sleep she's had in years!
"She has even commented on how it has made me calmer and has urged me to continue. She even said I'm looking a bit fitter too.
"Talking to many other participants they are also feeling the benefits with their own mental health, PTSD and depression, and that must be encouraged most definitely.
He said the thrill of catching a wave was "incredible".
"I've played a lot of sports over the years and surfing was never really on my radar," he said.
"But this is just fantastic - the feeling when you catch a wave for the first time is incredible and then when you manage to stand up it's amazing - pure satisfaction.
"It's almost impossible to describe. Just so exhilarating - now, I just can't wait to hit the water.
Surfing and being out on the water is definitely therapeutic, both mentally and physically. It's very soothing and good for the mind. I've noticed a marked change, particularly, in my sleeping habits.Veteran Surf Project graduate Rick Meehan
"And anything that is good for your mental health has to be a good thing, not only for the individual but also for their family, who often also suffer due to the veterans' issues.
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"It can only be a good thing for the whole family unit."
He said he definitely intends to get his own board and continue surfing and will also be a regular at the ongoing project sessions as an "example and to encourage others" and to "share his experiences with newcomers."
While it was initially planned to just have 10 participants over each 10-week course, participants are now able to join at different stages of the program.
So far more than 30 veterans have started the program - five have graduated with a further five to complete their course this week.
While a number of the veterans are from the local area, participants have also travelled from southern Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra to take part.
Project coordinator Rusty Moran was invited by Western Sydney University to undertake a Post Graduate Research Masters Degree to study the impacts of the program, something he says is a dream come true.
"The things I am most passionate about are all here - teaching surfing, improving mental health, using natural therapies and scientific research, all coming together to improve the lives of veterans and prove that surfing is medicine," he said.
He said the response has been "unbelievably life changing for some so far".
The surf just relaxes your mind while giving your body a full workout and then we all get together for lunch on the beach and the stories crank up and they all connect with each other. It feels a bit like a family reunion.Veteran Surf Project coordinator Rusty Moran
"I knew from previous research in the US and the UK that it would be a success, but Aussie veterans haven't been studied like this before and this is the first long term study in the world, so I have felt the weight of how important this is," he said.
"I got in touch with the guys in the US at Operation Surf [watch the Resurface trailer documentary at www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8W1yvrPA-U] and have received a lot of support from them and the researchers over there, which has really guided my program format.
"The guys in the US have definitely seen lives change due to their programs and we are experiencing the same here - I knew as soon as we got them out on the water, got them onto their first nice ride, they would be hooked on surfing.
"My biggest challenge with anyone suffering depression is they often don't have the energy to try something new which could really help.
"Many of the crew had been pretty tentative on day one, but I knew as soon as we got them to the beach and to experience the feeling of riding a wave, we'd have them stoked and the ocean does the rest.
"The surf just relaxes your mind while giving your body a full workout and then we all get together for lunch on the beach and the stories crank up and they all connect with each other. It feels a bit like a family reunion.
"The veteran community is tight - there is a real sense of camaraderie which is unique to veterans - quite often they recognise each other from previous service, some of these guys served together decades ago, and they instantly reconnect and know they are often all going through the same stuff.
He said the participants' success in learning to surf is infectious.
As surfers, we know how good it feels to see someone else experience riding a nice wave, and when the vets catch a wave we feel it too. It's a special feeling. Me and the other coaches, we just can't help but hoot and cheer like little kids when these guys get a good ride. For me, that feeling is as good, maybe even better, as surfing myself.Veteran Surf Project coordinator Rusty Moran
"As surfers, we know how good it feels to see someone else experience riding a nice wave," he said.
"And when the vets catch a wave we feel it too. It's a special feeling. Me and the other coaches, we just can't help but hoot and cheer like little kids when these guys get a good ride.
"For me, that feeling is as good, maybe even better, as surfing myself."
He said through the clinical study by the Western Sydney University, it is hoped to prove the benefits in tackling PTSD and depression through surfing.
"We hope to get around 100 veterans to complete the 10-week course by the end of the year and we still have positions available."
Any veterans who would like to take part in the program, which is held each Wednesday (8am-12noon) and Saturday (11am-3pm) can contact Rusty on 0414 245 216 or www.veteransurfproject.org or via social media at @VeteranSurfProject.
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