Once a professional surfer, Van Curaza has dedicated his life to helping others suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through surfing. Today, Toby Mathis of Anderson Business Advisors talks to Van about Operation Surf—Healing Veterans Through Surfing. The program has therapeutic results. It’s not therapy or treatment. It’s life-changing and life-saving.
- Why establish Operation Surf? Going through his own journey of recovery through addiction, Van wanted to not be so selfish, but give back.
- What started the process of helping active duty warriors? Rodney Roller, a Navy Corpsman and amputee surfer wanted to go surfing, again.
- Why focus on service members? Van understands wanting to be good at what you want to do when given a purpose and feeling of self-worth/self-efficacy to succeed in life.
- If a veteran is suffering from PTSD, do they get referred to Operation Surf? Due to extensive airtime, Van gets inquiries from all over the United States, as well as from locals that want to be involved.
- Why are outdoor recreational programs beneficial to veterans? Research studies and data prove that getting people out into nature, into the ocean is helpful for PTSD.
- What does it take to surf? An attitude adjustment. Most people think being able to surf means standing on two legs and standing on a surfboard. You’re not going to surf like Van. You’re going to surf like you.
- Just say, “Yes,” why? To create connections and relationships. Learn the effects and challenges that others are trying to overcome. Help somebody for the right reasons.
- Why vett veterans? As a non-profit organization, Operation Surf’s vetting process has veterans express their willingness to move forward and achieve maximum effectiveness
- What does Van look for in volunteers/instructors at Operation Surf? Ability to work together and understand your population by speaking their language to trigger specific behaviors, words, or actions.
- How can people help Operation Surf? Volunteer, donate, sponsor, participate, and bond. Whether it’s time, money—whatever you can do.
Full Episode Transcript
Toby: You’re listening to the Anderson Business Advisers Business Brief. This is Toby Mathis and today, I’m really lucky to have Van Curaza with us from Operation Surf. Hey, man. How are you doing?... Read Full Transcript
Van: I’m just loving life, living the dream. What can I say?
Toby: Van is awesome. I just put him on the spot and told him we’re going to record this. We’re having a really good conversation, so he’s playing good. Van, how did you get started? Just give us a thumbnail sketch of where Operation Surf came along.
Van: The bottom line is going through my own journey of recovery through addiction, I found that one of my solutions for my journey and my self-worth and everything for me is to be of service to other people. When I had five years of sobriety and through my process, I realized that I was a very selfish person even though I didn’t believe it.
I started wanting to give back and I started a program, Amazing Surf Adventures, for at-risk and underserved youth. As I went into this process, I had my surf school in Pismo beach and I had a guy Rodney Roller that was working for me, he was an amputee surfer. Back in 2006, a navy corpsman was recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He asked Janis Roznowski who was the founder of Operation Comfort that he wanted to go surfing. She said find someone to take you surfing. He reached out, found Rodney Roller, Rodney Roller worked for me, and we started the process of helping active duty warriors in transition, who were recovering from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Did a bridge of what Janis Roznowski gave us from Operation Comfort. It started the whole process.
Toby: People don’t realize this, you were a big wave professional surfer, right?
Van: Yeah. I got around a little bit.
Toby: Got around a little bit and Operation Surf isn’t just some fly-by-night. You guys have been on Netflix, I saw that. You’ve done a lot of really good. In fact, I encourage anybody to go out there, I’ll post your website and everything, but you’ve done so much good for our military members who come back with PTSD. Those who know me, that’s one of the areas that we are really passionate about is this idea that so many of our service members are taking their own lives. You really zero in on that. You work with service members primarily, right?
Van: Yeah, that’s our focus right now is to be good at what we want to do, to branch out, and in the future to be able to help other populations. Really what it is all about is just human connection, being relatable, and to be suggestive instead of giving directions and stuff.
Toby: So what do you do? Let’s just say right now, a veteran comes back, they’re suffering from PTSD, do they get referred to your organization? Or do they just reach out?
Van: It’s been a long process because one of our first national exposure was through ESPN. They did a Veterans Day Special and it went national for quite a few months because, for different occasions, they kept sharing it. A couple of times during half time at NFL, football games and stuff. We started to get inquiries from all over the United States. Also, when we were doing our programs in our locations in San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz, we’re getting local people that wanted to be involved. We were only serving the population of warriors in transition from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. So, we started opening up about five or six from the hospital. Five or six within a hundred miles of each location then five or six from all over the United States through an application process.
Toby: Were they referred over to you then by the hospital saying this is somebody who can really use your program?
Van: We work with a recreational therapist there at the CFI and they have recreational programs that they do that are directed to getting them out, doing things outdoors, and that connection that Janis Roznowski gave us where the carry was. It is what our foundation has been for the past 11 or 12 years now. She has her patients going through the process and she just has the best fit that would benefit from coming and then they had to be cleared through all the way from the general.
Toby: It sounds like you have a great connection and this is what’s interesting. They figured out that getting people out into nature, into the ocean is actually helpful for combating PTSD, right?
Van: Yes, there are studies. There’s data on it. It’s true.
Toby: I’ve seen some of your programs. Not everybody else has seen the programs and I would really encourage anybody who listens to this to go see. I’ll put a bunch of them up, ESPN, and you did a great program with Nextflix, and there’s a bunch of stuff online. But you’re talking about people that have been blown up, have serious injuries, that are going out learning to surf. In fact, I saw a guy quite literally, if I’m not mistaken, missing both legs and an arm and he’s still up there. He’s getting up on a longboard. That’s absolutely amazing.
Van: There’s quite a few. We got Bo and we got Martin, the one limb surfer. Surfing has absolutely changed his whole purpose in life and he […].
Toby: What was that like getting them up the first time?
Van: It’s funny because coming into the program, the image most people have of surfing is standing on two legs and standing on a surfboard. Their attitude about not surfing is really minimized because they don’t think they’re going to be able to surf. That’s when I tell them, you’re not going to surf like me. You’re going to surf like you. We’re going to teach you what makes a surfboard work, how a surfboard works, what it takes to catch a wave, and you’re going to surf like you.
That’s why in a bunch of our videos, you see double amputees doing handstand and stuff because we use professional surf instructors that people have been making their life out of surfing guiding one-on-one instructions to our warriors in transitions. We get them to do things that they never thought they we’re going to do. I guess when you have a platform that you’re able to succeed at a goal and surpass it, that’s where your self-worth and self-efficacy start coming from.
Surfing is a perfect platform because you’re not only with mother nature in the ocean and water. You’re on a platform where you can reach small attainable goals and surpass multiple in one day. When you actually leave a good day of surfing with proper mentorship and guidance, you can actually accomplish things you never ever thought you can do in just one day.
When you leave from anything, succeed at something, when you really think about it, when you set a goal out and you achieve it, you feel good. If you do that multiple times during the day, you kind of feel great. That’s one of the beautiful parts about it. It’s what Operation Surf does. We dangle the carrot of surfing to get people around other people with like-minded problems, that they get a chance to see not only themselves but experience others, to motivate their willingness, to keep moving forward with their wellness.
Toby: How did you end up concentrating on warriors suffering from PTSD and all these things? What brought you to that? Did somebody reach out to you or did you come to that just by trial and error?
Van: What happened is somebody asked for help and it starts with saying yes. First of all, when somebody says I would like for you to… and yes. ‘Yes’ started the whole process. What happens with the word yes, you create an opportunity for connection. When you create connections, you create relationships. When you develop a relationship and have an ongoing conversation with individuals, you can actually learn about the effects and challenges that they’re going through.
I started building these relationships with these warriors in transition and I realized the effect of what was happening with surfing in their lives, then I was able to make sure that certain elements were continued and certain elements were taken out. As each of the relationships, as each time I did it, I learned more and more about the challenges that they were going for and are trying to overcome.
I was actually seeing these benefits of the family atmosphere. The group setting was just as powerful because we were actually creating a place where they were in a loving environment with multiple people where they can see other people caring for the true motive of helping somebody for the right reasons.
With that, that’s where a lot of the program came from was just the relationships and the feedback of what was happening in their lives, of what was good and bad. Not everything is perfect, but when something went wrong, that’s when we learn from a mistake to do something different which would then 10 years later, we have a curriculum that’s based upon building relationships and a lifetime of support.
Toby: I’m no expert on surfing. I used to longboard in Washington at a place called Westport which was brutally cold and still loved it but it is frustrating trying to get up on a board with all your limbs. How do you guys deal, I imagine some of these guys are getting pretty frustrated and they are upset anyway. What is it like?
Van: That’s interesting because as a surf coach, we want to make sure that we tee-up people for success. Part of that is putting them in a place where they should be on the water and understanding where you shouldn’t be on the water. Having the proper equipment and guidance from the right people. The only time we’ve had any challenge—I’m not going to say failure but challenge (I guess)—is when the willingness really wasn’t there and that’s why we have a vetting process to find the people that are willing to put the effort into attempting it.
Toby: Not just somebody who just doesn’t want to overcome and they’re not there yet, they’re not just there yet?
Van: Yes, but I guess that’s why it’s important that even when you want to doesn’t necessarily say that you’re going to. But when you actually see others accomplishing something that you’re halfway committed, to allow us to find a little bit more willingness and purpose to move forward.
One of the things is we’re a non-profit organization and when we get a donated dollar, we want to make sure that the dollar donated is going to the maximum effectiveness of carrying out the outcome of what our mission is. We try to do our best to get the right people in the program that want to be there that will benefit from it.
Toby: That’s interesting. You just don’t do your own vetting, right? You’re actually working with hospitals. When somebody is ready then they may hand them over to you? What’s the process?
Van: At the CFI, Heather does most of her vetting out through the people that are in the facility going through a process. Now, when we work with local retired veterans and then veterans throughout the United States, we have a vetting process that starts with a couple of our past participants, we go through a vetting process of making sure they’re veterans, making sure who they are, and what they are. Then they go to another process and they get to write essays. They got to show their willingness for them, for me to get to know a little bit about you so when I get to know a little bit about you, I go through the pairing.
I pair you up with your surf instructor that I think would best fit your personality, your needs, and your goals. Then they’re assigned to each veteran throughout the week to try to achieve that bond and that relationship. You just don’t come. I go through a big process about learning who you are, what makes you tick, what makes you not tick, what triggers you, what brings you out of your challenges. We put a lot into this.
Toby: It looks like family when you guys are all around. Is this a week? Is it a process where they’re spending a lot of time? I heard one of your guys say it’s almost like counseling, but it’s not. It’s just being around a bunch of veterans.
Van: Yeah, that was Mike. Operation Surf is a week-long curriculum-based program that has therapeutic results. We’re not therapy. We’re not a treatment. What we are is a program that creates therapeutic results which therefore it’s been life-changing and life-saving.
Toby: Do these guys keep coming back again and again?
Van: Yes, they want to and quality problems are that we are developing alumni programs where they can come back but they are issued a job and a responsibility to be a part of the process during the week. Also, I’m limiting how many times they come back due to leaving space for somebody that hasn’t done anything yet.
With that, we’re doing alumni surfing treats in other locations. We try to keep everyone moving in keeping the dream alive, creating opportunities to dig deeper. Just digging deeper into our story which then I believe creates more connections which then allows us to have more support and the family grows in a more […] way.
Toby: You have some pretty amazing instructors, too. I can see some names in there that I recognize. Are they volunteering? How are you getting these guys?
Van: They started off volunteering then I started realizing that my expectation of the commitment of their time, I realized that I needed you there for seven days and I know there are people that can, but the majority of the people cannot take away a week out of their life. Not only for their job but from their family without the compensation of it.
That’s just my personal thing because I want everyone’s 110% engagement in our process and what our mission is. We went from volunteering to paid surf instructions because of my high expectations of their time with us.
Toby: Did that make a difference? Did you see it pop up?
Van: Yeah. Through our time, I realized that when everyone was a volunteer, the deepest connections were made with the people that were there all week. Then I realized the benefit of people being there all week long. When I really looked at it, it made sense because I may meet somebody and go, you’re a great person, but I only know this much of you. Therefore you’re only getting this much of me. Why and how can you expect anyone to let a process get to a certain level when you only know somebody this long? For me, I’m not telling you. I’m going to tell you as much as I think you need to know or that I will allow you to know. Then, the more I get to know people, that’s where things get more intimate.
That’s what Mike was talking about because some of the most beautiful conversations that we have during the week are at dinner. You know that […] is one of the most powerful times for connection throughout history is that a meal.
Toby: It’s got to be intense.
Van: It’s intense, but it’s fun. Our mission is just to go out and support you during our week and as things come up, that’s why if I was your surf instructor, I would figure out what makes you tick and what doesn’t make you tick. Then I would do the things that are part of the solution and not dig into increasing the problem.
That’s why the interaction with the two people for a week-long is so beautiful. It’s because the two people create a little team and there’s that attention, that […], that focus, that value, that ability to reach those small attainable goals. But then you do that seven or eight times over and sometimes ten times over and over. All of a sudden you have all these little teams doing and experiencing the same thing, going to dinners and having them sitting down with dinners at different times. Sitting at a beach after surf sessions. Interacting and talking and all of a sudden, at the end of it—that’s why we don’t throw this word around lightly—it’s ohana. That means ‘family’ in Hawaii.
We create the feeling of family at the end of our week surfing together and going through this curriculum. We have little things during the week also that allow us to be vulnerable in front of others, in a close setting to allow people to have the trust that they can say what they need to say, and they’ll be supportive in the right way, and judge the least amount as possible.
Even though the judgment is still happening, you can’t say that there’s no judgment but the fact is that the judgment of all of us together doing the same thing is we’re all in this […] so it’s really important for me to have people really tell the truth. The best environment that you can do that is by creating a trusting environment. That’s what we focus on as an organization, as Operation Surf. I want you to go to a place where you feel safe.
Toby: It’s all about family.
Van: It’s all about family.
Toby: I’m going to leave you with a couple of questions.
Toby: First off, if somebody is a surfer—I’ve assumed that you want pro-level surfers—do you ever take regular layman surfers? Can it be anybody? If somebody really wants to be involved, is there a way that you vet those folks?
Van: Yes, a little bit because one of our core values is our participants are the most important thing. We get a lot of people with the right motives to be helpful, but what it basically boils down to is getting into the ocean, the ocean is an unforgiving source of energy. God bless everybody, but the fact is I search for the proper fit. Got a lot of personality. I really look for people that have gone through their own personal challenges in life so they have something relatable too. It’s not just this big perfect image of whatever’s going on. To have somebody around that is imperfect, that has an experience that has overcome and succeeded to get to the other side. That’s one of the elements I look for.
One is having good energy in a group setting, being able to work with others, be willing to take directions, and when you put a bunch of leaders in the same room, it creates a lot of chaos but it’s not saying that a leader can’t be involved. But when multiple leaders in one place understand that our ultimate goal is to achieve our mission, then that’s the ability to work together that is so important. Then obviously just understanding your population. We must understand to be able to speak the language to where we don’t trigger our participants with our behaviors, our words, or our actions.
I encourage people to reach out, but it’s not an easy process. I’m actually currently developing a training process that is a certification process for anyone to get into the water, to make sure that we’re all speaking in the same language, we’re all on the same team, we all understand if in an emergency—
Toby: You got your hands full, brother because that’s a lot of stuff.
Van: I care and when we seek and find to collaborate with other people, other groups, other organizations, our core values are super important and we want to stick by them, we live by them, and I want to make sure to my best ability that anyone that does attempt anything to do with Operation Surf, that you’re going to see that we care and that our hearts are in the right reason, in the right place. We do this for the right reason. We’re not doing this for exposure. We’re doing this to help.
Toby: You need exposure though. That’s the thing. So many people don’t realize what a big huge issue—
Van: That’s why doing these things are so important because the fact is we can’t help anybody without the dollar bill. One of the goals of my legacy that I want to leave behind is that our heart is more important than the dollar bill, but our dollar bill is important to take care of the heart.
It’s a really fine line to operate in a corporate setting of business, but I’d rather keep things in line with where I’m caring about how we’re affecting people versus doing whatever it takes to raise a dollar bill. I know there are people out there that will give with the trust that their dollar will be used the right way and that they are able to give unrestrictedly to allow us to do what’s necessary with that dollar so we can achieve our mission and to grow as healthy as possible to continue to serve our populations. That’s why a lot of my intensity during our programs has been witnessed. It’s because I really am passionate about caring.
Toby: I just love it. This is so awesome. You’re sweating. I’ve done this so often.
Van: My wife, my boss, she’s actually the boss of Operations Surf. She’s in another meeting at the office while I’m home working.
Toby: We’ve all gone through […]. You don’t even worry about it. This is the thing, especially the folks that listen to me, they love authenticity. There are tons of charities you can run around and throw money at and say I donated to XYZ and you feel really good about yourself.
You know and I know 70%–80% of those dollars are going into somebody’s pocket. I love organizations where you know the dollars are going back to the people you want to serve and we need to help these young men and women that are coming back from war zones and all. Is it just military now? I know you worked with disadvantaged youth and stuff.
Van: Our primary focus today is our warriors that are in transition from whatever challenge that they have, but I do have a big vision because I believe that the curriculum that I created will help any population. It’s changed the language, it’s changed the settings of the staff and volunteers. I really believe that with proper support, I can help so many other populations. But we don’t want to dilute our service and care by trying to do too much. That’s why we have a plan of growth to maximize what we are doing now.
One of the things is we want to utilize our past participants to create a purpose of them helping not only other veterans but maybe families of veterans and maybe other different populations, and using their skill set and their commitment to an organization like us to give someone purpose and find a reason why I’m going to walk through this time. Why I want to improve, why it’s important to be the best me so I can be the best for you. That’s why wellness and self-care are so important for us.
Toby: For somebody who has a family member who’s a veteran, is it all through CFI, or do you have people that get referred over because you have a son, daughter, spouse, sibling?
Van: Only one-third of each program right now at this time comes from the CFI because we have a third from all over the United States and then I tried to have a third from the community. To involve the community, involve our country, and then still create a relationship with the CFI.
But you know, things are going to be different after this COVID time. We’re going to be adjusting our program, how we do it, our main purpose, and our main goal right now is to survive this time but to become better through it. This time, we’re probably going to have to adjust how we deliver our services and to create an opportunity to allow the most important parts of our programs to still exist, but the numbers of people are obviously going to be trimmed down due to the circumstances.
Toby: I think you’re going to come out with this great because it’s so needed and the thing about COVID, I’ve been griping about it, but we have about 50,000 Americans that commit suicide every year as it is and we’re going to see that number go up substantially. And substance abuse goes up. For every 1% of unemployment, it’s about 1% suicide increase, and 1.6% of substance abuse increase. We need groups like you more than ever, so if anybody can help, buy a T-shirt, donate, I can send them out to your website.
Van: operationsurf.org. We do have a store on our stuff.
Toby: I’ll make sure to link it up and we’ll get it out there.
Van: With that message, I want everyone to know out there that it takes a village and we’re only the worker bees and the vessels of it. Every part of everything that takes place for the whole year-round to the week prior to, the months prior to, the week during, and afterward, every part of everybody that does something either donating money, if that’s the way you can, donating time, donating sweat equity is part of our outcome.
So when you hear a testimony of what and how Operation Surf has changed or saved their life, you’re a part of that. I think it’s really important for people to understand that we all give in the way that we can and just support the mission of what is important to you. I just want to say that we can’t do it without you and you can’t do it without us, but we all do it together in harmony to where we are able to be part of the solution.
By all means, you need to understand you are very, very important no matter if you’re just volunteering for three hours to take out the trash, to the people that are donating hours and hours, and countless times to help us run a program. It’s all you equal. It’s all an even plane and everyone is just as important.
Toby: Fantastic. I really appreciate you spending some time. I’m sorry to put you in the hot seat. I got to tell you, my assistant loves you guys. She’s been stalking and saying talk to Van. You got to talk to Van, for so long. You have some pretty rabid fans out there with good taste, so I’m glad we were able to get you on.
Van: I so much appreciate it. It’s an honor to be here, to be in a place where I can help our country, to stay in my silo not try to change everything but change one thing at a time, just do the best I can every day, and to understand that my freedom is not free. I learned this by being of service to our wounded and by having these relationships.
I really realize how important our uniforms are to our country to be free to make the choices that we’re able to do on a daily basis.
Toby: You said it perfectly. Thanks, man.
Van: It’s just an honor so thank you.