Agents Of Change: Blinded By The Light

Stephan Jenkins, the Third Eye Blind frontman, talks about his work alongside active-service military with The Jimmy Miller Foundation

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Miller Foundation

In a comment that was hardly semi-charmed, Stephan Jenkins said he was away from waves while he was touring in Houston, and he said the feeling was depressing. “I think it’s not being able to surf, and the constant exposure to forced air in these buildings, which sounds like a blow dryer all the time,” he said. “But mostly, it's not being able to surf. It's a drag.”

The Third Eye Blind lead vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and longtime surfer is in the middle of a 38-show tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut album–the self-titled, 6x-platinum collection that lives immortal among fans of the ’90s. Tonight will mark a rare day off for the group in Hermosa Beach, at least in the sense of a traditional tour schedule. Jenkins and the band will surf with active-service Marines as part of the Jimmy Miller Foundation, a non-profit adaptive surf program that uses ocean therapy to aid soldiers suffering from PTSD. The band will then perform at the Saint Rocke theater at 7:00 PM tonight for a special benefit concert (The concert is sold out, though you can live-stream the concert here).

We asked Jenkins about his work with the foundation, the transformations he’s seen from soldiers who brave their first waves, his reflections on the surfing life, and more.

How’d you get into surfing?

Surfing was a thing I always coveted. I always wanted to try it. During college, I was kind of in this pattern of going to school and then needing to go to work. I had to have an after-school job. Then when I got out of college, I got sick, and I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I just didn't have the energy for years to be able to surf. And then all of a sudden, it blew up. So it was only until about 11 years ago that I got serious about surfing.

Do you feel like surfing satisfies you in ways that music can't?

Absolutely. All of my best friends are surfers. My crew of friends, my real brothers, I all met through surfing. How many minutes do you actually spend on a wave? Not very many. We value something that's not measured in length of time. This moment of presence and connectivity goes beyond that. And is there an analogy in music? There is. There are times when I feel like my voice can do anything. But to me, nothing is like surfing, where I drop in, and I don't have any choice but to be entirely in that moment.

And that's why it's so effective, I think, with people who suffer from PTSD. With PTSD, you're not energetically, emotionally, consciously here, in the present. You're seeing things through this fog of your trouble. But that positive energy from surfing lifts you and picks you up. You're going to show up.

How did you get involved with The Jimmy Miller Foundation?

I was seeking for a way to give and do something philanthropic, and I get so much joy our of sharing it. I wish someone had taught me how to do a decent pump my first couple years of surfing so that I didn't pick up horrible habits. To be able to share that with people, it's such a good feeling. To be able to pass that on to people who, you can see how much they get out of it, and to know they're going to go out and make surfing part of their life and part of how they re-enter society again.

Based on everything I’ve heard about him, Jimmy Miller was such a great person. I was in Tavarua a while back. I met some guys who asked me if I volunteered for the foundation. When I said yes, they said, "Jimmy was the one who taught us how to surf.” He was such a lovely, giving guy. I just love that that's the case.

What was an example of a moment when you saw the surfing experience transform a serviceman or woman firsthand?

One time, when I was teaching surfing in Hawaii to some service members who had PTSD, I had this sergeant, who was probably 25, and she had that distant look on her face. She was struggling, but I kept working with her. She paddled out again after getting worked on a set, and I told her to spin around and go for another one and I pushed her into it. When she paddled back out, her whole chemistry had changed. I could see her face. She had a look of pure stoke. She was present. She had the sense of joy and mischief that surfing brings you. That was a great wave for me. And it was only whitewater [Laughs]. Surfing is culture to me. It's how I commune. The greater, more-complete joy that we feel is when we do something that's more expansive, that's out there for others.

Third Eye Blind. Photo: Danny Nolan

How do you think the restorative qualities of the ocean benefit an afflicted soldier?

The ocean is a combination of things that are a part of us. The salt content is like the content of our blood. The sound of the ocean moves like the sound of our heartbeat. Also, if you paddle out to a place like Blacks, you're in the wild. When people ask me how I enjoy being in nature, and I tell them that I love to surf, they’ll tell me that the ocean is all the same. I tell them, Nope, every wave is different. It's always changing, and it keeps us looking out at the horizon. That's our demonstration of infinity. And I think those of us who haven't served our nation, like our military, have an obligation to help those who have served experience that feeling.

What can we as surfers learn from our veterans?

Part of why I love acting with this foundation is to be in the presence of strength. When I work with these men and women, I see people who are in the struggle, and showing up for it. I’ve never once told a Marine to paddle for a wave and they back off it. They will paddle into anything. If you say Go, they will go. They want to come home. That's what it's about, right? And that's what the ocean is: home. When you get there, you feel re-centered. And all that shit of driving down the freeway to check for surf, all that stuff floats away. You take that breath, that last belly breath, you look out at the horizon, you see that wave coming, and you go, “Alright. It's time to come home.”

It's also that, in surfing, you have to develop a sense of martial courage, of holding in the face of physical challenge. So it requires absolute focus. All of these things come together, and when you get a Marine who has PTSD, and you get them into a wave, you can see their faces change as they paddle back out. You can see the courage in their presence. On the 19th, on our day off, I'm spending it in Hermosa surfing with Marines. I'm every bit as excited for that as I am about traveling to Bali for a surf trip after our Tour. There’s incredible joy when you see guys who showed up and served, actually come home.

Agents of Change is presented by Cobian's Every Step Matters (ESM) initiative. Learn how, by choosing Cobian footwear, you can make a positive impact and enrich the lives of others at Every Step Matters.

Photo courtesy of Stephan Jenkins