Ryan McDonald

Jimmy Miller Foundation, LA Kings host vets for day of surfing in Manhattan Beach

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Veterans and volunteers throw some celebratory shakas after emerging from a morning surf. Photos by Ryan McDonald

by Ryan McDonald

Rough waters and overhead surf didn’t stop a group of military veterans from throwing themselves into the waves of El Porto this week, thanks to the Jimmy Miller Foundation and an assist from the Los Angeles Kings.

The foundation hosted veterans from the West Los Angeles Veterans Hospital Groups Monday for a morning of ocean therapy. Instructors from Camp Surf provided tips on technique and kept the vets safe, while a pre-surf yoga session from Yoga Glo got everyone warmed up.

The foundation, named for a beloved local lifeguard and surf instructor who lost his life to mental illness in 2004, is devoted to ocean therapy. It has been a pioneer in using surfing to assist veterans and active-duty soldiers deal with the rigors of combat and helping them prepare to return to civilian life. The foundation hosts events throughout the year in the South Bay and at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.

“The idea that the ocean could heal us was not really talked about at the time,” said Kris Primacio, ocean therapy coordinator for the foundation. “Thirteen years later, we are still thriving.”

Veterans and volunteers warm up with a lesson from Yoga Glo before jumping into the waves

Primacio said that the foundation was recently featured in “Resurface,” a documentary on the use of ocean therapy that will screen at the TriBeCa Film Festival this month. One of the veterans featured in the film, a triple amputee, is able to paddle and catch waves on his own. As evidence of surfing’s allure, the documentary shows him declining a new pair pair titanium leg fixtures, because they would impede his surfing.

The ocean therapy programs recently received a boost in the form of a $50,000 donation from the Los Angeles Kings. Former players Nelson Emerson and Kyle Calder were on hand to help volunteer.

Amanda Ellis, community relations manager for the Kings Care Foundation, said that the donation had been made to coincide with the franchise’s 50th season in Los Angeles and their “Forever 50” campaign. Surfing, she said, seemed especially valuable to veterans dealing with trauma.

Personnel from the Los Angeles Kings and Yoga Glo take in an El Porto day.

Surf instructor Kyle Denitz tried to prevent any added trauma from taking place, giving the veterans a lesson and safety tips before they plunged into the water. Some were new to the ocean, while others had been to foundation events before. All listened eagerly as Denitz passed along the wisdom of experience.

“If you are too far up on your board, you’re going to pearl. It’s not a lot of fun, except for the people on the shore,” he joked.

Among the veterans hitting the surf Monday was Krystal Rains. Rains struggles with anxiety, and said she has had traumatic experiences with water in the past. She had surfed with the Miller foundation on several previous occasions, becoming more at ease in the water. Monday’s wild conditions meant that she wasn’t able to ride waves quite as well as she did the last time. But what the ocean taught her, she said, was the ability to more comfortably deal with challenges larger than herself.

Surf instructor Kyle Denitz gets some laughs while discussing the proper way to fall.

“I really feel pretty good about myself today. Now, am I ever going to do something like that?” Rains said, referencing the movie “Point Break.” “Probably not. But I’m okay with it.”

Rebecca Kopczak, a recreation therapist with the veterans’ administration, said that surfing was valuable precisely because, for most vets, it is new and more challenging than other activities. She noted that with archery, another recent activity the vets had undertaken, all had ample experience handling weapons. Surfing, she said, was different.

“With surfing, there’s a real sense of accomplishment. Nobody’s ever unhappy when we leave. That’s my goal,” Kopczak said.

The Jimmy Miller Foundation will host the Dig4Jimmy & Doug Surf n Turf on May 13 at the Manhattan Beach Pier. For more information, see their website: http://jimmymillerfoundation.org/

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