CAMP PENDLETON — Brandon Dodson, lying prone on his surfboard, confidently glided through the ocean water to catch his first wave of the day. As the swell approached, he paddled furiously and within seconds, he’d lifted his body up, swiftly tucked his legs behind him, sat up on the board and navigated his way to the shore.
Just a little more than a year and a half ago, an improvised explosive device ripped through the Marine staff sergeant’s intestines and pelvis and severed both his legs above the knee while on a foot patrol in Afghanistan.
Although still completing his rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, Dodson took a break this weekend to participate in a special surf and paddleboard camp for wounded veterans held at San Onofre Beach on Camp Pendleton’s northern end. Sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund, which provides support for injured members of the military and their families, the camp drew some 25 veterans recovering from a variety of serious injuries, plus more than two dozen volunteers.
“Since my injury, surfing is the only thing that is easier for me to do,” said Dodson, 30, a Ramona High School graduate who expects to return to San Diego with his wife and 3-year-old son by the end of the year when he is released from Walter Reed.
“Most of the guys out here who are wounded warriors are from somewhere else where (surfing) is not a big thing and they’re doing it for the first time. I’m comfortable in the water, so I get out there and I really enjoy it. I don’t want to say it makes me feel
normal but it’s something I get to do that I did before.”
There were plenty of high fives, cheers and broad smiles Saturday morning as veterans, accompanied by their instructors, spent hours in the water paddling back and forth, frequently tumbling
into the surf, but also standing or kneeling on their boards as they rode the waves.
Watching injured vets triumph over the waves, some of them
having never before surfed, was especially gratifying for Keith Lovgren, co-founder of Waves of Impact, a nonprofit that helps put
on surf camps and brought a crew of volunteers to the weekend Semper Fi event.
“We couldn’t get them out of the water yesterday they were having so much fun,” said Lovgren. “One comment we heard was,
‘You don’t know how much this means to me, sometimes I just get so overwhelmed by everything.’”
Ryan Voltin, a Marine helicopter pilot who lost his left leg below the knee and was severely burned while in Jordan nine years ago, was a largely inexperienced surfer before coming to the camp from his home in New Mexico. After spending several hours in the
ocean on Friday, he prepped for Saturday’s session by practicing on his hotel room floor standing up on both legs from a prone position.
By the time he emerged from the ocean Saturday he was getting high fives from his instructor, Eric Franklin, after successfully riding a few waves standing on his board.
“It was really exhilarating and for my instructor, too, who was thinking ‘When is this guy ever going to stand up?’” said Voltin, a father of four who currently pilots a helicopter for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“I’m under no illusions that things are what they were before my injury but despite a lot of the things I’ve lost, experiences like this show me there are some things I can still achieve even though I might be disabled.”
While she has no visible physical injuries, Sharika Blockett suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Army for nine years. She left in 2003 following a deployment in Iraq. Like others, she’s found “recovery through sport,” as Semper Fi’s motto goes.
“I’ve actually been able to get up and surf and ride the waves, and oh my gosh, it is an amazing thing,” said Blockett, 39. “Being cheered on by my brothers and sisters has been just awesome.
“It’s a struggle to find the perfect balance but therapy through nature gives you a sense of calmness that it’s going to be OK, and you can apply this to your everyday life because this is our new norm.”