By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
As he sinks his toes into the white sand, the familiar saltwater air fills retired Master Sgt. Tony Anderson’s nose.
The former special operations Airman’s chest expands as he draws in a deep, deliberate breath, attempting to capture some sort of relaxation in the air. Exhaling, he releases his breath forcefully, pushing out any anxiety or inner demons.
The crashing Florida Gulf Coast waves echoing in his ear is a comforting sound he’s heard since childhood, growing up less than 12 miles away in Milton, Fla. They also serve as a reminder that his life hasn’t always been a calm, peaceful existence.
Not long ago, Anderson began his physical and emotional recovery from traumatic experiences during the more than six deployments he served as a Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance operator for 12 years, then as an Air Force Special Tactics Airman for more than 11 years. The calm of the ocean always managed to keep him from capsizing inside.
“The beauty, the purity — there’s nothing better or more relaxing,” said Anderson of the ocean. “Anything with the water is a God send. It’s something I cherish.”
Throughout his career, Anderson’s nerves were shaken on deployments to Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other locations. These deployments left Anderson with post-traumatic stress disorder, a spinal cord injury and several other injuries.
It was only three years ago that Anderson, a lifetime surfer, grabbed a surfboard and took part in the first session of the Navarre Beach Surf Warriors program, a program designed to teach and coach wounded veterans on surfing, while growing their confidence and providing fellowship with others.
“Instead of reporting to a doctor’s office or clinic, we have these veterans report to a beach,” said Christina French, the program’s founder. “The beach provides the background for our warriors to remember what it’s like to be part of a team where each person also has an individual sense of responsibility as well.”
On this early May morning, dozens of wounded veterans took to the beach in Navarre, Fla., as the program kicked off its season, full with instruction, yoga and a beach packed of friends and family. Throughout the summer, these veterans took part in five sessions of instructional surfing by program volunteer coaches.
Since the program began, Anderson has been one of 24 veterans to take part, culminating in a surf championship in Virginia Beach, Va.
For Anderson, who also served as a parachute instructor for the Air Force Academy’s Wings of Blue, his happy place isn’t flying through the blue sky like he did in the Air Force. It’s not in some HOORAH activity like when he was in the Marines. His happy place is found in mellowing out and catching a wave, he said.
Catching a wave is similar to riding a bike for Anderson — it’s something he never forgot how to do, and is something that he finds comfort in its familiarity.
“Lots of things have changed since I left,” Anderson said of the 23 years he spent away from his hometown while on Active Duty. “But the water hasn’t changed. Getting back up may be a little more difficult now than from when I was younger, but the feeling of standing up on a wave is exactly how I remember it.”
That familiar feeling of returning to something he remembered, dating well before any of his deployments or worries, is Anderson’s equivalent of being told to “take two of these and call me in the morning,” by a doctor.
“Staying wet is awesome therapy,” Anderson said. “Everyone has their own healing path. Maybe not everyone’s healing path is in the water, but mine is.”
The affects of this therapy can be seen on Tony’s face, according to French.
“Seeing Tony stand up on a wave, I can see all the stress just melt away and he becomes peaceful and happy,” said French, who’s an exercise physiologist at the Hurlburt Field Health and Wellness Center. “Some rides create a smile of calm and peacefulness, like when Tony rides. For others, they wear a smile of commitment and motivation. For each one of our warriors, it has the opportunity to provide a healing comfort, emotionally and mentally, yet be physically challenging.”
But the water isn’t the only thing bringing Anderson out.
“It’s nice to be around the people in my same boat,” Anderson said, who’s also part of Air Force Wounded Warrior programs. “It’s easier to get along with fellow wounded warriors right now. It’s scary to reach out to people who don’t understand us.
“It’s just nice to be around a group and actually smile and participate.”
Even when Anderson can’t make it out to the beach, the ocean, in all its majesty, still finds a way to calm him.
“Sometimes I have moments when I’m feeling stressed, and it gets bad fast,” said Anderson of the times he’s not at the ocean and taking part in every-day life. “If I can sit back, close my eyes and think about being at the beach, it’ll get me through the day.”
Standing on the beach that perfect spring morning just feet from the water, Anderson’s anticipation is palpable. He paces around the beach like a child on Christmas morning, eager hands tightly gripping his surfboard, waiting for a coach to free up so he can begin his surf session.
Paddling out, Anderson bobs smoothly up and down in the water as he makes his way from the shore.
Sitting on his 12-foot-long blue surfboard, which is supplied by the program, Anderson looks off in the horizon waiting for the right wave to carry him in. While others may wait less and take a smaller wave, Anderson isn’t rushed. He’s calm and committed to finding a wave capable of carrying him all the way to the shoreline. After a 10 minute wait, Anderson spots a wave in the distance.
Facing his surfboard back toward the shore, Anderson’s coach urges him to paddle as the wave makes its appearance.
“Come on, Dad!” yells Anderson’s 9-year-old son, Cole, from the beach. Soon, all three of his boys, ages 9 to 15, are up and running to the shoreline, pulling for him, as he gains speed on the wave.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” The coach’s words can be heard from the shore, some 200 yards away.
Exploding off the surfboard to a standing position, Anderson catches his first wave in a year.
Riding the wave in, Anderson’s determination turns to joy.
No injury, no inner-demons, and no limitation stops Anderson from catching his wave that day. Taught early in his special tactics water survival training, Anderson was made to embrace the water, to not let it strike fear in him.
Decades later, Anderson has grown upon his embrace of the water as an ally in life.
“Life can be like a wave. You may fall off, you may get tossed around, but you have to get back up,” Anderson said. “When you do get back up and catch that wave, there’s nothing like it…you always get back up.”