LONG BEACH, N.Y. — Tara Hutchinson smiled more than you’d expect for someone who could barely stand on a surfboard. She had wiped out more times than anyone else in the water, and yet she paddled back out for another go.
The retired Army sergeant first class has spent the last four years undergoing countless surgeries after losing her leg in Iraq, and without that second limb to steady herself she was not having much luck staying on the board.
Hutchinson’s surf lesson was part of a week-long program for wounded service members by the Long Beach Waterfront Warriors. The Long Beach Waterfront Warriors hosted 34 recovering wounded service members and their families July 24 to July 30.
“I love it here. I was the first one on the surfboard last year,” said Angela Lupe. Her injuries in 2003 left her confined to a wheelchair and eventually she was medically separated from the Army in 2005.
Lupe watched from the beach as volunteers pushed special beach wheelchairs into the water and helped amputees out into the waves. “I hope they get as much out of this as I did. It can change their lives forever,” she said. “It’s not about one event or one day, it’s about the community and the people expressing their support.”
Local residents host guests in their homes instead of lodging the visiting service members at a hotel, creating an informal getaway for visiting families, said Lupe.
“We want to let these guys know we really appreciate what they’ve done for us,” said Jerry Snell, Long Beach Waterfront Warriors chairperson.
“The entire community has really stepped up,” he said.
Snell said the community wanted to create a relaxing respite for families going through the long process of recovering from war injuries.
Gunnery Sgt. Marcus Wilson, an infantryman, has gone through just about every emotion since being injured in Iraq in 2006. Here, he relaxed on the beach while his three children played in the water.
After his leg was amputated he had to decide if he should stay in the Marine Corps.
“It was very tough initially. You feel worthless to the Marine Corps and you don’t want to be a burden to anybody,” said Wilson, Marine Liaison Office, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, company gunnery sergeant.
As he began recovering physically his optimism increased as well. He was one of the first amputee Marines to attend the Advanced Course, a two-month resident course in advanced leadership and field tactics.
“I can do anything an able-bodied Marine can do, I just need to be more creative with how I do it, and that’s what grunts are good at,” he said.
Wilson was recently selected for promotion to first sergeant and hopes to move from Walter Reed to a position back in the Marine Corps later this year.
Hutchinson hadn’t stopped trying to surf. After one particularly hard fall off the board, a lifeguard and some volunteers in the water nearby attempted to provide an out for her. “You ready to get out?”
Someone even motioned to her wheelchair on the beach.
Like plenty of other wounded warriors she’d moved beyond being embarrassed by slips and falls from her physical shortcomings.
She was going to surf.
She laid out on the board and with the momentum of the wave she slid forward, pushed herself up and planted her one leg on the board.
And for one fleeting moment she was finally surfing.