Members of Operation Surf during an event at Capitola Beach Sept. 15. (Photos by Steve Martarano)

Capital Region Veterans Roll With the Waves of Life

Veteran Surf Alliance, Operation Surf and other organizations help veterans socialize and heal

Back Web Only Nov 19, 2021 By Steve Martarano

Sacramento may be 100 miles from the closest surfable ocean waves, but that hasn’t stopped Capital Region veterans from catching them. Many use the ocean’s calming qualities to help them connect with other veterans and deal with a common byproduct of their military service, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veteran Surf Alliance surfers wait for the next wave during a Halloween event Oct. 30 at Capitola Beach.

Veterans William A. Condon, Pearli Van and Matt Huffman all tout the mental health benefits they’ve found in California-based groups such as Operation Surf, Veteran Surf Alliance and One More Wave.

“When you’re out in the ocean, waves are coming at you and you don’t have time to sit there and think about stuff,” says Van, who lives in Folsom. 

Folsom’s Pearli Van suffered severe knee injuries near Baghdad in 2005 and isn’t able to stand up on her surfboard, but that hasn’t stopped her from regularly surfing with veterans in Pacifica and other locations.

“We’re all out here trying to support each other as we roll through the waves of life, through the waves of the ocean,” says Sean Meyers, cofounder and president of the 5-year-old volunteer organization Veteran Surf Alliance, which has about 130 members and is based in Santa Cruz. He spoke before a Halloween event at Capitola Beach Oct. 30 attended by the three Sacramento area veterans.

Veterans Pearli Van and William A. Condon at Capitola Beach before getting in the water for a Veteran Surf Alliance event Oct. 30.

The older and larger nonprofit Operation Surf, started in 2011, states on its website that “if they are dreaming of the waves tomorrow, they won’t take their life today.” The website also cites the independently published study “The Impact of Ocean Therapy on Veterans With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” by Russell Crawford, which observed a 35 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms and a 47 percent reduction in depression among Operation Surf participants.

Based in Central California’s Avila Beach, Operation Surf sponsors a week-long program for veterans that includes surfing instruction, peer-to-peer support, and daily activities such as yoga, group meals and nightly recap videos, along with a six-month follow-up program.

Members of the Veteran Surf Alliance pose in their costumes before the group’s Halloween surfing event at Capitola Beach Oct. 30.

“It was a great week,” says Condon of his Operation Surf experience in July. A graduate of San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, Condon joined the Marine Corps at age 19, right after Sept. 11, 2001. “A lot of us came in (to the program) still broken, and we opened up pretty quick.”

Condon was deployed to Iraq for the initial invasion in 2003 and was part of both major battles in Fallujah in 2004. He currently works at the Sacramento International Airport supporting United Airlines as a ramp agent, and says his passion is filmmaking with a goal “to reach all vets who are struggling to let them know they are not alone.”

William A. Condon, Veteran Surf Alliance co-founder Sean Meyer, and Pearli Van head into the ocean at Capitola Beach Oct. 30 during the group’s Halloween-themed event.

“Surfing has become my guiding light and has given me the strength to keep moving forward, knowing my surf ohana will always be there for me,” says Condon, using the Hawaiian word for family. 

Van says the friends and contacts she’s made through both programs and other veteran-based groups such as Clean and Sober Norcal Whitewater have benefitted her immensely. She has also started a group of her own, Folsom Kayakers.

A happy Pearli Van after surfing Oct. 30 at Capitola Beach.

“I started with a PTSD program as something to get my PTSD under control, and it began a personal healing path,” says Van, who served for four years overseas and was deployed in 2004-2005 as part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom efforts. Van suffered severe knee injuries near Baghdad in 2005 and isn’t able to stand up on her surfboard, but that hasn’t stopped her from surfing, whitewater rafting, kayaking and leading water classes at the Swimstitute in Rancho Cordova.

William A. Condon navigates a wave at Capitola Beach Oct. 30.

Van, who graduated from Folsom High School, says that she received two surfboards from San Diego-based One More Wave, which supplies veterans with boards and wetsuits. Her 15-year-old daughter, who has autism, kayaks and also benefits from the calming effects of water, she says.

North Sacramento resident Matt Huffman says that for two or three days after he surfs, “I’m just in a happy place.”

North Sacramento resident Matt Huffman, who works as a civil plaintiffs attorney, says the groups allowed him to get back into surfing earlier this year. 

Matt Huffman, upper center, and Pearli Van and William A. Condon, bottom, navigate waves during the Veteran Surf Alliance event Oct. 30 at Capitola Beach.

“I had attempted to surf before this and made a fool of myself. Now I make less a fool of myself,” says Huffman, 11 years sober. From 1992-95, he served with Army infantry at Fort Ord and Fort Irwin. “I struggle with a lot of anxiety and some obsessive thinking and depression,” he says. “I’ve been going out about once a month, and for two or three days after that, I’m just in a happy place.”

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Ray Sotero (not verified)November 22, 2021 - 12:22pm

As a Vietnam veteran, I found this an eye-opening insight into a program that I have never heard about. Thanks!

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