Veterans take to the waves

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By J. Eric Eckard

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Andy Manzi was one of 2.7 million American troops deployed to the Middle East during the years after 9/11.

The simultaneous wars with Afghanistan and Iraq killed thousands of U.S. troops and wounded another million. Marine Sgt. Manzi made it back to the United States after two deployments.

“I was an Infantry guy, and we didn’t have the easiest job over there,” said Manzi, who returned suffering emotionally and mentally from his time overseas.a

Some studies show that about 20 percent of U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen who served in combat after 9/11 suffer from PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. Other studies say that figure is higher, but because these men and women are by nature tough and resilient, many hide their symptoms and don’t seek help.

Manzi said he tried the Veterans Affairs medical route, but it wasn’t helping. He needed something else.

“I picked up a surfboard and paddled out into the water,” he said. “That was March 2009, and I became glued to surfing.

“It’s been a part of my life ever since.”

After Manzi discovered the mental health benefits for him through surfing, he decided that he could help other veterans battle their emotional demons out on the water.

The Warrior Surf Foundation was born.

“Surfing opens up doors, both physically and emotionally,” Manzi said. “We just give veterans an opportunity to come back to a community again – to come alive again.”

Manzi and Tyler Crowder, a U.S. Army medic who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, founded the Warrior Surf Foundation in 2015 in Folly Beach, S.C. Crowder, who also struggled with post-war injuries, grew up surfing in Wrightsville Beach.

Six-week surf camps serve as the foundation’s main focus, offering veterans and sometimes immediate family members surf lessons. But the foundation also employees a psychotherapist for anyone who wants to seek counseling as well as surfing.

“Most people build pretty big walls up no matter what they’re going through,” Manzi said. “Those walls get bigger as they go on.

“We can battle through those walls. Everyone just needs an opportunity.”

Chuck Gainey has been surfing since he was a kid. In 2014, Gainey helped Chad Davis found Carolina Surf Brand, a lifestyle company that operates the Carolina Surf Film Festival.

Gainey, a surfer along the Carolina coastline, said he met Manzi because they both travel in the same surf circles.

“We’re not veterans, but we appreciate the military,” Gainey said. “Some have physical scars; others have mental scars.

“The veterans come home, and then they go to the surf camps. They feel better about themselves, but then they also get hooked on surfing.”

Gainey said he tries to work with Manzi’s group during events, and Manzi said they’re always trying to partner with various organizations to raise money and awareness.

Warrior Surf Foundation holds events at festivals, restaurants, bars and other venues throughout North and South Carolina. Next month marks the group’s second golf tournament fundraiser.

In 2019, the Warrior Surf Foundation should have its North Carolina chapter up and running in Emerald Isle, chosen because of its proximity to so many military bases in the state.

“This country really does love its veterans,” Manzi said. “But being out on the water pushes me to be better and do better for them.”