Gerringong surf instructor's program to help veterans fight PTSD

Getting back to 'normal life' for those who have served, been away from home and put their lives on the line is sometimes the hardest part of being in the military.

That sacrifice is something civilians will never truly understand.

For Jamberoo's Lyntton Tonta going from the routine, the training, the discipline and the mateship back to civilian life was tough.

Mr Tonta does not suffer from post traumatic stress disorder but many of his army mates do.

They and others like them are plagued by the 'black dog'. They are in a dark place, are unmotivated or have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope.

That is why Mr Tonta believes a potential surfing therapy program is a shining light.

Former big wave professional surfer and Gerringong Surf School owner, Rusty Moran, has partnered with Gerringong RSL sub-branch president and former army officer Glenn Kolomeitz to launch an Australia-first initiative, Defence Surf Therapy Program, to heal the wounds of defence personnel suffering from PTSD.

Surf school instructor Rusty Moran taught army veteran Lyntton Tonta how to surf for the first time on Saturday. Pictures: Sylvia Liber

Surf school instructor Rusty Moran taught army veteran Lyntton Tonta how to surf for the first time on Saturday. Pictures: Sylvia Liber

Over 10 weeks veterans will be taught how to surf, will be connected with other sufferers and will learn how to practise mindfulness.

"I am excited to learn a new skill," Mr Tonta said. "Surfing will let veterans take their mind off the past and will help them focus on what they are doing in the present.

"In the army, training was 95 per cent of the job and operations were five per cent.

"Learning to surf will be a good challenge especially because many in defence force are competitive.

"Rusty's program is taking a holistic approach that aims to strengthen the mind, body and spirit."

Mr Tonta - who served in the army for five years to 2013 and went to East Timor in 2010 - believes he does not suffer from PTSD because when he left the army his wife was pregnant and his focus turned to his new daughter who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

After going out on the surf with Mr Moran for the first time on Saturday, Mr Tonta can already see how the program would benefit veterans.

"It was awesome," Mr Tonta said. "Rusty was a brilliant teacher and I loved it.

"I can see that this program would be great, especially being on the South Coast close to the military base at Nowra."

Army veteran Lyntton Tonta with Gerringong Surf school instructor Rusty Moran who has teamed up with Gerringong RSL sub branch president Glenn Kolomeitz to launch a new initiative, Defence Surf Therapy Program. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Army veteran Lyntton Tonta with Gerringong Surf school instructor Rusty Moran who has teamed up with Gerringong RSL sub branch president Glenn Kolomeitz to launch a new initiative, Defence Surf Therapy Program. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Mr Moran said there were many benefits to the program.

"Sufferers can come together, talk to people in the same situation who can relate to their trauma and hopefully not feel so alone," Mr Moran said.

"While waiting for waves, surfers open up and talk about deeper things, in the same way as soldiers do during deployment.

"Then once riding a wave, they feel the adrenaline rush, which they crave.

"Surfing puts us in a flow state, where we are enveloped in the present moment, so there is no space for regretting past events or anxiety for the future.

"If we can help veterans learn practices to clear their mind of negative thoughts, they can be more present off the board then hopefully they can incorporate it into their civilian life routine.

"That is not to mention the help benefits of being out in the sun and getting exercise in the big blue gym of the ocean.

"The best part is getting demolished in the surf, which, rather than in combat, is totally enjoyable and builds resilience as well as a sense of awe of the power of mother nature."

The surf instructor already runs a specialised surf program to help kids with autism and more recently provides free surfing lessons for adults with mental health issues as part of the international "Fluro Friday" program.

For Mr Moran, the surf therapy program for veterans is deeply personal. He has had his own battles with mental health.

"My Dad is a Department of Veterans Affairs Gold Card Holder who served in World War II with his two brothers," he said. "He came back with PTSD and there was no program to help him. So he and his brothers turned to alcohol to self medicate.

"My siblings and I had a harsh upbringing because Dad did not deal with his own mental health issues.

"Basically we had the shit kicked out of us when Dad came home from a bender.

"Fortunately dad was rescued by Alcoholics Anonymous when I was five and that saved our family, and he has been a mentor with A.A ever since.

"Now I'm in my late 40s and surfing has helped me deal with those issues."

Netflix released a documentary, Resurface, about the Operation Surf initiative.

Mr Moran's idea for the initiative is based on the work of two programs running in the United States. In 2014, Carly Rogers published a clinical surf therapy study which demonstrated significant improvements in PTSD scores in 14 US Marines.

The other program is the Santa Cruz based "Operation Surf".

The programs have now received full US Military backing as a non-pharmalogical, outdoor-based therapy to heal PTSD.

Mr Moran with Mr Kolomeitz will use the data from the US program and after speaking with the secretary of the veterans affairs department last week, will submit a submission for funding to the department for a pilot program.

If funded, the program would have clinical oversight from Prince of Wales Hospital NeuRA Foundation neuroscientists who would conduct psychological assessments and do brain scans of veterans before they start and after they finish the program.

Mr Moran hopes the scientists would then publish a peer-reviewed paper, resulting in the Department of Veterans Affairs fully funding and expanding the program around the country and to all first responders.

"I'm not a psychiatrist but I have lived through second generation PTSD trauma," he said. "Surfing helped me face my issues and I hope veterans can use surfing as a therapy too."

Former army officer and lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz learnt how surf from Rusty Moran. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Former army officer and lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz learnt how surf from Rusty Moran. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Mr Kolomeitz said the program was a tangible initiative aimed at addressing the scourge of PTSD among the veteran and first-responder community.

"Rusty's natural compassion and dedication and his emphasis on clinical outcomes and research-based initiatives makes him the ideal person to run this program for our brothers and sisters who have served," he said.

"I would love to see Rusty speaking to all RSL sub-branches up and down the coast about this fantastic and essential wellness program."

For support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511.

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This story New Illawarra surfing therapy program to help veterans suffering from PTSD first appeared on South Coast Register.

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