For PTSD vets, surfing is about returning back to life.
For War Vets suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, returning to the source is about returning back to life.
Every surfer knows the feeling. You haven’t been able to get in the water for a few days, or a couple of weeks, or maybe even longer. Work, or family commitments, or illness, or any other of a hundred reasons might be stopping you bagging your wave-riding fix, but whatever the cause the outcome is clear: the longer you go without paddling out and catching a few waves, the more bad-tempered you get.
But eventually, things turn around. You find yourself in the sea. The surf might be big, it might be small, it might be plain old average: it doesn’t matter. You’re stoked to be amongst it, and all the angst drops away. Surfing works its unique magic. You feel pure again.
You don’t have to work hard to imagine this. It’s what we who surf all know. But now imagine that most nights you don’t sleep, because your mind is scarred by visions of a daytime sky darkened by plumes of black smoke from burning oil fields. Imagine waking up smelling diesel fuel. Imagine dreaming of a priest blessing a tank, being covered in shrapnel, seeing your comrades suffer brutal injuries. Imagine all this, and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And then ask yourself this: if you were suffering from PTSD, just how good would surfing be.
One man who knows is Rich Emerson, who, while serving with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, was deployed in 1991 in the 7th Armoured Brigade with ‘D’ Squadron as part of Operation Granby – better known as Operation Desert Storm. Emerson, born in southeast London in 1965, is proud to have helped in the liberation of Kuwait, but the experience took its toll. Indeed, it’s possible that unless he had discovered surfing, he might never have recovered.
Put simply, Emerson has been through the mill. Brought up largely in Southampton, his father was a Royal Marines Colour Sergeant and Physical Fitness Instructor (PTI). He instilled in his son both a lifelong commitment to staying in shape and a desire to serve in the military. Aged twenty-two, having qualified as a motor vehicle mechanic, Emerson, keenly aware of his family’s Irish connection – his grandmother was from Ireland – joined the Queens Royal Irish Hussars, historically a cavalry regiment and, since 1993, amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Hussars to form the Queen’s Royal Hussars. The nomenclature might elude most of the surfing community, one not known for its bellicose streak, but there is no doubting what happened next.
“I loved serving in the military, experiencing its camaraderie and sense of purpose,” says Emerson, who excelled at various sports, boxing for his regiment, becoming the Army Single Sculling Champion and, like his father, a PTI. But Operation Desert Storm wreaked a peculiarly insidious havoc: “I wasn’t aware of being under pressure at the time, but my life started to unravel after I left the army in 1993.” Emerson was twenty-seven and had been married to Katherine, with whom he had four children, Victoria, Luke, Nathaniel and Elizabeth. But his increasingly erratic behaviour contributed to his divorce – not once, but twice. His second marriage, to Carol, also foundered, but only later did Emerson understand why.
“I’d have nightmares about Kuwait, about the terrible things I saw there,” he says. “I’d have a horrible, almost constant state of anxiety and would get into a self-destructive spiral of drinking, suicidal thoughts and depression. But I didn’t know anything about PTSD. Nor did anyone around me.”
Emerson had arrived in a bad and dangerous place, one where he would drink, perhaps to annul memories of seeing fellow soldiers severely injured, perhaps to obliterate what he describes as “a strange, nagging sense of guilt”. He recalls staring at photographs of the conflict, or of his children, whom he was now rarely seeing. “Things would spiral downwards very quickly,” he says.
Lean and fit, Emerson today is softly spoken with intense blue eyes. Tattoos betray his military past, his children and his sporting accomplishments. And a weathered, tanned face hints at how Emerson made the first steps to getting his life back on track.
“I started surfing when I was thirty,” he recalls. Emerson was visiting Cornwall to see his first wife and children, who were by then living in West Penwith. He encountered St Ives’ Porthmeor Beach working at a solid 4ft. “I was with a mate, and I just looked at the surfers out there and said to him, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Emerson acted immediately on his impulse, buying a board and wetsuit and learning to surf in Bournemouth and West Wittering, where he was then living. But before long, he had moved to Cornwall. Becoming a surfer helped him deal with the difficulties of his second marriage breaking up – “I’ve been very lucky, the surfing community has been brilliant to me,” he says – and now gives him a newfound sense of purpose. For Emerson, who was only recently diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, is helping other combat veterans discover the unique sense of renewal that comes from surfing.
“I got a lot of help from my partner, Emma, who contacted the British Legion on my behalf,” says Emerson. “Through them, I was introduced to the Warrior Programme, a charity designed to help ex-servicemen. Then I attended Operation Amped in California.” At this point, Emerson’s eyes light up, almost as if the burning oil fields have, at last, left his memory. “Operation Amped was set up to introduce servicemen to surfing for one simple reason: surfing can change your life.”
Emerson is now at the helm of Combat Surfers, a UK group similarly dedicated to tapping the source for veterans suffering from PTSD. Its first event, held in September 2009 at Gwithian Beach in Cornwall, was an unqualified success. As local surfer and friend of Emerson’s, Russ Pierre, put it: “One veteran told me he hadn’t laughed so much in six years since leaving the Army. The smiles, the laughter and the stoke was contagious.”
Emerson knows why. “Surfing is about being in the moment. You can’t think about anything else other than being in the sea, waiting for waves, riding them. The salt water draws the negativity out of you. You feel pure afterwards.”
Every surfer will know that feeling, but few of us have had to grapple with PTSD. Next time you’re feeling a bit of angst, maybe because you haven’t had any waves for a while or because the line-up seems a little crowded, spare a thought for the surfer next to you. He might just need some stoke a lot more than you.