After 15 deployments, Navy SEAL Alex West returned home a different man.
“[It] really put a lot of strain on my body,” he explained, and that strain left West struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and a traumatic brain injury.
But, despite the pain and trauma from his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing still remained a constant: West's love for the water.
“I joined the Navy to be a SEAL," he says. "I think there is something special about the saltwater.”
All photos provided by Starbucks.
It comes as no surprise, then, that West would find healing and recovery in the waves.
Tapping into the sense of wholeness he found in the water, he turned to surfing as a way to cope with the after-effects of war.
“The moment that you catch a wave, there’s something about it in your mind that there is nothing else that goes on in the world,” he shared. “You just step away from that everyday life of getting ready for deployments or for combat.”
Turns out, he wasn’t the only vet to find a sense of calm in the water.
Fellow Navy SEAL James McFadden found comfort from the ocean too, after he returned from his first deployment having taken two bullets to the leg. He had to have 27 operations.
At first, he had worried he wouldn't be able to surf again, but he was determined to try, so he joined an adaptive surf program at Balboa Hospital. That's where he met West.
“When we first met each other, it was a huge surf day,” West explains. “And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh man, this is not good, this is going to be kind of dangerous.’”
But McFadden was unfazed. “I just crushed it out to the lineup,” he says.
West was amazed and inspired — watching McFadden skimming across the waves, he realized there was a real opportunity to make surfing more accessible for veterans like McFadden, who would benefit from custom equipment.
“Just because some of these guys and gals are missing legs or have serious injuries, it doesn’t mean that they can’t push it,” he says. “But there wasn’t one place that just specifically designed adaptive surfing equipment [for them].”
That’s how West got the idea for One More Wave — a nonprofit to help disabled veterans get back on the water with equipment designed especially for them.
If you are missing a limb, West explains, you might need a handle to hold the board better, or you might need to move the fins of the board for better support.
West and his crew connected with vets who badly needed new gear to get back on the water and helped them through inventive designs and community support.
“We’re bringing guys out, we’re studying them, we’re surfing with them,” West explains. “By providing them with a truly customized adaptive surfboard, we are able to help [them] catch more waves.”
But it’s about more than just surfboards — it’s about the healing that happens when they get back out on the water.
One of the veterans whose life was transformed by One More Wave is Tommy Counihan, who says he finally found the sense of belonging and peace that he had been searching for on the water.
“I went from wanting to kill myself to wanting to conquer the f***ing world,” he admits. “[I wanted] to go out and break down all those limitations that I had set up for myself."
“I got that from surfing,” he continues.
When West heard stories like Counihan’s, he realized he was offering something much more important than just gear — he was offering a sense of kinship and community, which veterans returning from war so often needed.
For these vets, finding a sense of purpose, healing, and community can be life-saving.
War can be incredibly traumatic, with upward of 11-20% of veterans returning from Iraq suffering from PTSD, and nearly 1 million veterans living with a disability after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And with nonprofits like West's, the quality of life for these veterans can be vastly improved with the right support.
“Whether you are dealing with an injury [or] you’re down, there is a way to get out of the darkness,” West says. “There’s a lot to live for in life. There’s still another wave to catch.”
Check out the amazing work of One More Wave in the video below: