Veteran Surf Project hopes to roll out across Australia after helping PTSD sufferers find peace


The creators of a surfing program credited with saving veterans’ lives are hoping to win federal government support to expand the program across Australia.

The Veteran Surf Project, based in Gerroa on the NSW south coast, has supported over 200 people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.

Veteran Greg “Willo” Williams joined the program about two years ago and says he has found a cure.

“There’s the euphoria of riding the waves, and all these people are screaming and clapping and carrying on. It feels so good,” he said.

Mr Williams served in the Australian Defense Force (ADF) for seven years, but it was his six-month tour of Iraq that exposed him to horrific events and left him scarred.

Greg Williams credits the VSP for saving his life and believes he could help countless other veterans.(ABC Illawarra: Kelly Fuller)

A veteran finds his “cure”

Mr Williams tried to find help from medical services and community groups for several years, but nothing worked and his mental health deteriorated.

“At some point in 2013 I attempted to take my own life,” Mr Williams said.

“I couldn’t deal with the noises, the smells, the things that were in my head, the visions that I couldn’t get rid of.”

About two years ago, a tradesman visiting his home for maintenance noticed Mr Williams’ surfboard and army backpack and suggested he join a special surfing program for veterans in Gerroa.

In July, he reached his 110th surf with the group.

“It gave me a purpose in life, it gave me a kick, it saved my life,” Mr Williams said.

“I have to take my surf medicine every other day.”

About seven surfers on the water with gray clouds approaching
Over 200 veterans have already graduated from the program.(ABC Illawarra: Kelly Fuller)

Launched by a big wave surfer

The program is the brainchild of former professional and big-wave surfer Rusty Moran, who battled his own generational trauma caused by his father’s post-WWII PTSD.

rusty moran
The VSP is the brainchild of former pro surfer and big wave rider Rusty Moran.(ABC Illawarra: Kelly Fuller)

“I was teaching a bunch of GPs [general practitioners] and they were sending Navy veterans back to my surf school, and one of them planted the idea that we should prescribe surfing as medicine rather than medicine,” Mr Moran said.

“And I was like, ‘Okay. This looks great.’”

Veterans are referred to the program by word of mouth, general practitioners and hospitals.

It starts with a 10-week learn-to-surf program that includes cognitive behavioral therapy, with participants encouraged to continue surfing with the group.

‘Surfing commands respect’

The program offers camaraderie, athleticism, risk and an adrenaline rush, which Moran says aligns with aspects of service in the ADF.

“Surfing commands respect,” he said.

“It will knock you down if you’re not careful, so you have to concentrate fully.

“There is no other space to think about the past. You have to be in this present moment. It’s meditative.

“Then there’s that thrill of tackling one of the waves, staying on the board, and staying all the way to shore. It’s just 10 seconds of pure bliss.”

Three people stand on the beach in different colored overalls and shirts pointing to the water
Rach Ranton and the VSP team check the waves before hitting the water.(ABC Illawarra: Kelly Fuller)

Mr. Moran said the program had produced overall results.

“We had a Vietnam veteran who hadn’t slept more than three hours a night for the past 48 years,” he said.

“Then when he started surfing, he almost doubled his sleep. It was unreal.

“We had police detectives, some trying to get rid of drugs and alcohol.

“For some, it’s about maintaining their temper and outbursts of aggression.

“A lady had her date of suicide penciled in her diary and her friends let me know that absolutely not only saved her but also saved her children and her husband because they got their mother back and their wife.”

It is now the subject of Mr Moran’s master’s degree at Western Sydney University.

He hopes to have scientific evidence of success to share with the Department of Veterans Affairs within the next six months.

The project has also recently received funding from the NSW government to include first responders.

To “rebuild and re-identify”

Veteran Rach Ranton, who served in the military for 11 years with tours in East Timor and Afghanistan, came from Queensland to take part in the programme.

Woman stands on the beach holding a surfboard and smiling
Rach Ranton served in the military for 11 years with tours in East Timor and Afghanistan.(ABC Illawarra: Kelly Fuller)

“It’s a really positive program. It helps you rebuild and re-identify who you want to be in the future,” she said.

“For me, that’s the ultimate mindfulness. You’re in every moment to be there and focused, so yeah, that’s why I love surfing.”

Mr Williams said the team hoped the project could be rolled out across the country.

“I truly believe that with programs like this, and this program in particular, we can reduce veteran suicide to next to nothing.”


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