Last month, tragic news broke that Charles Keating, a Navy SEAL based in Coronado, CA, was killed in combat by ISIS fighters in the city of Tel Asqof, Iraq. In the days following his passing, word surfaced that Keating, also known to his friends as Chuck Heavy, was not only a decorated warrior and a world-class athlete, but was also a fully-fledged waterman and devoted surfer. To honor Keating at his memorial, his friends emblazoned an image of him on a tee-shirt, a cigar protruding from his bearded mouth, his heavily muscled arms gripping an automatic rifle. Demand for the shirt skyrocketed, and the proceeds raised went on to support One More Wave, a nonprofit that the fallen SEAL held near to his heart. With a mission to provide wounded servicemen and women with customized surfboards, One More Wave utilizes the joys of surfing to help heal our nation's warriors. We recently chatted with the nonprofit’s founder, Alex West, to learn more about One More Wave’s life-changing work.
How’d you decide to start One More Wave?
I'm currently in the Navy and was in two helicopter crashes in Afghanistan that left me with some traumatic brain injuries, and surfing really helped me get back to my old self. I saw how important the seemingly simple act of being in the lineup and catching a few waves was for me, and I wanted to do more to help others. So I volunteered with Navy Hospital Balboa’s Health & Wellness ocean-therapy sessions. Part of what they do is take wounded veterans surfing—some with missing limbs—as a means to help them heal. The patients start out on soft tops and after a while a few of them were getting pretty good and were ready for their own board. That's when I had an epiphany: If these guys could get on custom boards, shaped for their specific needs, at no cost to them, it could really open up a new world for them through surfing.
Not long after, I was surfing with a Marine who had lost a limb. We were out in the lineup, and it was just one of those perfect Southern California days. The surf was super fun and the sun was out and it wasn't too crowded. I looked over at this guy and he was smiling ear to ear. I saw how stoked he was and I made some comment about the conditions being so good. He looked over at me, still smiling, and said that he wasn't just stoked on the conditions, but that it was just nice being out in the water. He said that when he was in the lineup, he didn't feel like he was being judged or gawked at because he was missing a limb. He just loved being there. For me, that was it. That night, I went home and researched how to start a nonprofit. That's how One More Wave was born.
I understand that you've had a lot of support from members of the SEAL community, including Charles Keating, who was recently killed in Iraq.
One of the other people behind One More Wave was a SEAL who lost his leg to a gunshot wound overseas. As word began to spread about what we were doing, we found that a lot of people in the San Diego area, including the SEAL teams, were really supportive. That's where I met Charles. He was good friends with a guy named Ian Urtnowski, who had a clothing brand in San Diego called URT, and we had a lot of friends in common. Once Charles, who's also a surfer, found out about the organization, he was super supportive of what we were doing. Before Charles was deployed, he was married in a courthouse with plans to have a larger wedding later, and he asked for their guests to donate to One More Wave instead of gifts. After he was killed, Charles’ family and Urtnowski had these Chuck Heavy tee-shirts made that were really popular. The proceeds from the shirts have gone on to help support the work we're doing. It's definitely helped us receive some publicity and will enable us to get a lot of guys in the water, get their own boards, and get that one more wave.
How have you seen surfing change lives?
One of the first people we worked with was a Marine who lost a leg in a car accident while stationed on Okinawa. I told him that I wanted to get him a custom board. He looked right at me and said, "But I didn't lose my leg in combat. I'm not a wounded warrior." I told him that anyone who has served in the military and who can use ocean therapy was someone who we wanted to help out. So we got him a board that was suited for him. We were able to move the fin boxes up to fit his needs, and he was able to get a paint job that's modeled after his service dog, Sophie. It's pretty classic.
There was also another Army vet who was really struggling with PTSD. He was actually considered 100-percent disabled from the VA because of it. Surfing was the one thing that really brightened him up. His wife sent me a handwritten letter explaining that she wanted to get him a board, but couldn't afford it because her husband's disability made it difficult for him to keep a full-time job. So we worked with him and got him a custom board. She later sent out a photo of him with his new board and custom art, grinning ear to ear.
What about other veterans who, because of their injuries, might not be able to ride a standard surfboard?
That's something that we've seen for sure. For those individuals, we're working with SOLE handplanes to get them bodysurfing. We've helped other wounded veterans get on paddle boards if they can't surf. We had a nurse who was caught in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan, who didn't even want to necessarily surf, but did want to get in the ocean and paddle around. For her, just being in the ocean was really calming. We're also working with a backpack company called Koralac. They have a product that allows a lot of amputee surfers to strap their boards to their back. With their crutches, they typically need someone to carry their board. Now, they can crutch up to the beach with their boards on back and surf all these spots by themselves.
Which shapers have you worked with?
Right now, we have two primary shapers. Micah Shannahan out of San Diego has been a huge help. He shapes under the label Addict Surboards and has been really creative in shaping boards suited for surfers with injuries, whether it's moving fins around to accommodate someone missing a leg or putting a handle on a board to make it easier for someone to get up. Chris Christenson has also been really cool and shaped about 10 boards for us, as well. He donated a ton of his own time and resources. Ryan Lovelace, out of Santa Barbara, has also been helping us out lately.
Are you looking to reach out to other shapers?
Without a doubt. We're growing really fast. Last year, we did 23 boards, and we've already done nine this year. We’re really open to anyone who's interested. Also, I want to note that we're not looking for handouts. We want to pay the going rate and work with a shaper to cut a board that's fitted for our surfers.
How do you see One More Wave growing in the years to come?
I'll be retiring from the Navy in a few years and I’m planning to go all in once I get out. I'm passionate about the whole program. We're mostly making boards here in San Diego, but we want to branch out to other locations with a large veteran presence. We'd love to expand to Hawaii in the coming years and then on to the East Coast.
If someone wants to help a wounded veteran get a board, what's the best way to help?
If they like, they can donate via our website. We're also going to have a volunteer sign-up section on our page and will collect a list of people who want to help if we hold any events. Lastly, if you like what we’re doing, spread the word on social media. I also want everyone to know that we're 100-percent volunteer right now. Every time someone donates money, everything goes into the organization. There are no big execs making money here. We're all volunteers.
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.