HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Out on the water, through the waves, the tide and the seasons, Mark Cox finds a drop of healing. Cox is a surfer, a hobby he’s been riding since his time in the Air Force. It’s a way for him to deal with the toll serving took on his body and mind.
Third Coast Rising has given him a chance to help others just like him.
“I got deployed to Kuwait in Qatar, which is not the biggest battle ground,” Cox said. “My buddy, my best friend who worked mental health in the Air Force, got deployed to Afghanistan. We came back different people. And I felt like, man, I wish I would’ve went to Afghanistan with him to be there, to support him.”
His friend saw combat, Cox did not. He said that guilt weighed on him and what others might think of his service.
“It’s just a weird feeling when you’re a veteran and everyone looks at you like someone that’s experienced combat or fought this war. And you didn’t. And you just feel like you don’t deserve that respect,” Cox said.
He says he believes it’s that feeling that causes veterans to become lonely, isolated and depressed and leads to veteran suicide.
“I think that’s a very big reason why a lot of veterans are taking their lives. Cause they just have this overwhelming guilt that they can’t get off their chest,” Cox said.
Cox said he knew the numbers through the “22 a Day” movement, a cause that has helped bring the suicide disparities in veterans into focus through the conversation that 22 veterans a day die by suicide.
“There was a time when I was doing Honor Guard and I had to do a bunch of funerals and just seeing all the caskets that I had to lay flags over, it was a very difficult thing. You can’t break your bearing. You can’t shed a tear,” Cox said with tears in his eyes. “It’s the craziest feeling to do all that and feel like, man, I should have been in this casket. It’s a weird thing. It’s a weird thought to have, but I can’t stop thinking about that.”
That is why he surfs. Out on the water he says he finds a sense of mindfulness. It allows him to center and focus on what’s important.
“I should be happy that I didn’t see combat. And I’m here living today to be able to surf and show other veterans and first responders they can receive healing out here,” Cox said.
That’s part of the reason Shelley Ritter started the nonprofit. As she began a personal journey to combat PTSD and past trauma, she found her peace on a paddleboard. From that experience, she remembered her own grandfather who had served in Vietnam and how he was happiest on the water and decided that veterans and first responders may also find that healing there.
“Our bodies carry the trauma that we have, but could we use our bodies to help us also heal from that trauma?” Ritter said. “The average human experiences three to four traumatic events in their life but a veteran and first responder, it’s about 300 to 400. So having that kind of trauma in your life and not a lot of help, not knowing where to go, made me start thinking about, could we kind of create this, combine the mental health and then the surf and paddle, to create that surf therapy, which is kind of spreading globally.”
Ritter knows that Surf Therapy is a new approach to mental health and she’s seeing firsthand the positive affects it can have on those who dive right in.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed is that there’s a feeling of likeness. Sometimes when it comes to trauma, one of the things that people experience is feeling separate and feeling isolated,” Ritter said. “That camaraderie and that, when someone in the small group says something and someone else says, ‘Yeah, I … experienced that too.’ That’s such a good, a good feeling to know we’re all connected and we’re all just people.”
Right now the group holds two eight-week sessions. Each week begins with a small support group on the beach led by a licensed counselor. The rest of the time is spent on the water either paddle boarding or surfing.
“Once we hit the water, our goal is really to kind of enter that flow state where we can be surfing or paddling where our participants feel fully in their bodies, which is something with PTSD, super helpful,” Ritter said.
Third Coast Rising caters to all levels of surfers and paddle boarders. They have surf instructors ready to help with tips and coaching.
“The overall goal of the organization is to get more veterans and first responders out here to receive this therapy,” Cox said. “For me, it’s just getting that feeling of pushing those veterans and first responders into those waves and seeing those smiling faces that almost makes me more happy than even catching a wave myself. It’s like seeing them just experience what I’ve experienced in the past decade in my life and that healing, it’s a beautiful thing.”