Magazine Post: Ocean Therapy for Veterans

Ocean Therapy for Veterans

By Louisa Sax

A staggering 58% of people who are exposed to warfare are diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, compared to between 3-6% of people in the civilian population. In 2019, 25% of U.S. veterans were reported to have a service-connected disability. 

The following are ocean centric programs that focus specifically on life and ability after military service using blue space as therapy. 

Operation Surf

Operation Surf channels the healing powers of the ocean to restore hope, renew purpose and revitalize community. It began 10 years ago when a wounded veteran wanted to surf again following a severe injury. Since then, Operation Surf has used these healing powers to help hundreds of injured veterans, active-duty military, military spouses and family from around the U.S. They do this through surf therapy and their online support platform. 

“The ocean is one of, if not the most, powerful things on our planet. It is a place where we are forced to remain in the present and focus on what we are doing.”

John Hallett, Veteran Services Manager, Operation Surf 

Veteran groups and instructors start their sessions “in the pit,” where they share experiences and personal solutions to tell stories, connect and find belonging before surfing to rinse it off. “The ocean is one of, if not the most, powerful things on our planet. It is a place where we are forced to remain in the present and focus on what we are doing,” says John Hallett, veteran services manager at Operation Surf. “When you are able to surrender to it and learn how to harness its power by simply riding a wave, you are forever changed. This is something that we have introduced to countless veterans throughout the years who had believed that they were no longer capable of doing such a thing. Giving people a new outlook on the future of their lives and what they are still able to accomplish despite their injuries has been our primary objective at Operation Surf. It gives people hope.”

Again, I wanted to know what it is about the ocean that is so healing. Hallett’s answer: “Dealing with severe PTSD and other challenges related to military service can result in your thoughts constantly racing and remaining in a state of hypervigilance. When I am in the ocean, I remain in the present, focused on the task at hand. It is a place that constantly humbles you and reminds you that you are not in control. It is a sense of surrender you have to accept, which ultimately brings peace. Even if I don’t get in the water, sit on the shore and listen to it, smell it and see it, I feel that peace.”

To learn more about Operation Surf, visit OperationSurf.org.

Mackie Davis from Dive Pirates

The Dive Pirates Foundation

For most people who participate in the sport, scuba diving provides an incredible feeling of bliss through weightlessness, a sense of freedom and quiet time. Now imagine the impact that this experience can have on somebody who suffers from a physical disability or the fatigue of PTSD. The Dive Pirates Foundation celebrates life after injury and the human spirit through adaptive scuba diving.

Founded by avid scuba divers Barbara Thompson, Sophie Wimberley and Janette Evans, teaching injured military personnel was supposed to be a one-time effort. However, the impact was so big that it quickly gained momentum, and the group is now celebrating its 17th year as The Dive Pirates Foundation. For the recipients of the Foundation, spending time underwater is “healing to the soul, very gratifying to not only have the sense of accomplishment of achieving open water diver status, but to enjoy it with friends and family.

“The weightlessness of the water frees many of our recipients from the constant pain and pressure they feel in a wheelchair.” And for those who live with PTSD, it “quiets the mind; under water, the world stops and they are at peace to enjoy the true beauty around them.” Not only has this organization bettered the lives of the recipients, it has also bettered the lives of those who run it, providing “inspiration, hope, compassion and humility in ways beyond words. The ocean brings us all together, and that camaraderie inspires us to live better lives and have hope for tomorrow.” 

To learn more, visit DivePirates.org.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities. Since beginning in 2005, the nonprofit organization has grown to provide 230 programs operating in 48 states that are managed by volunteers who work in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities, Department of Defense (DOD) military installations, Warrior Transition Units (WTU) and other institutions.

At the root of PHWFF is the belief that the sport of fly fishing holds many therapeutic benefits — encompassing the physical, mental and emotional. Fly fishing usually happens in beautiful places — places where nature can soothe and nurture and, most importantly, instill hope. 

“I can truly say [Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing] has saved my life. It pulled me from dark places and gave me an outlet. It surrounded me with people who have battled those dark places and won. They supported me and helped me to where I am today.”

U.S. Marine Corps Veteran

Todd Desgrosseilliers, president & CEO of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, explains, “I was referred to PHWFF by my doctor as a form of physical therapy for my traumatic brain injury. As a participant and volunteer, I recognized the remarkable physical and emotional transformation that the Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing Program initiated for me and for my fellow male and female participants, and I decided that I wanted to join its exceptional team after my medical retirement from the military in 2016.” 

In addition to the natural methods of relaxation and restoration offered by fly-fishing, the sport also requires dexterity, keen hand-eye coordination and intense concentration — which is challenging for even able-bodied anglers, much less those adjusting and adapting to their new abilities. But through these challenges come opportunities to learn, adapt and evolve through this exciting sport and to do so in beautiful surroundings that offer a rehabilitative outlet outside the traditional physical therapy room. Fly-fishing restores hope and offers many the chance to both physically and emotionally rehabilitate and recover.

When it comes to that mysterious healing power and our responsibility to nature, Desgrosseilliers says that “for many, the healing power of nature is the best therapy. Clean, healthy marine environments are a key component of that healing power. By learning the sport of fly-fishing, disabled veterans immerse themselves in environmental education and stewardship of oceans, rivers and streams. Their exposure to and involvement with conservation and educational work plays a key role in their development as anglers while simultaneously furthering their journey to recovery.”

“I joined Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing in 2015 as a participant. This program gave me a place to focus my negative energy through fishing activities and, of course, our time in the outdoors. The thing that helps me most of all is being around other veterans as we can all relate to one another. I can truly say this program has saved my life. It pulled me from dark places and gave me an outlet. It surrounded me with people who have battled those dark places and won. They supported me and helped me to where I am today. I am now a volunteer and mentor to others like me.” — U.S. Marine Corps Veteran

To learn more about Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing visit ProjectHealingWaters.org.

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