Foundation helps veterans find firm footing after deployment -- on a surf board

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A local veteran living on the Edge of America has been to the edge and back. Two tours of duty will do that to a man.

But Andy Manzi found a source of power and peace to help deal with his PTSD, and now he is giving back what was freely given to him helping fellow vets find their new freedom.

It’s why Manzi and his Warriors Surf Foundation are this months Jefferson Award winner. If riding waves is part of the day, then prep work becomes a rite of passage.

Andy Manzi never dreamed waxing surfboards would become such a big part of his life,

"Always wanted to learn how to surf. And I was born and raised on the Connecticutt coastline, almost in Rhode Island," said the co-founder of the Warrior Surf Program. "Put a suit on one day; first time I put it on it was backwards and I haven't stopped surfing since. And it kind of just took over my life."

Changed his life might be a better way to put it. Manzi served two tours in Iraq, saw the worst of the worst, brought home the nightmares, found PTSD was weighing on him like nothing he’d ever felt.

"You know, for a long time I kind of, I pushed myself like very far away from the military. You know, when I was in, I was a Marine. I did my job," he said. "It is overwhelming sometimes. I get teary eyed all the time. I don't know if a lot of people see it. It's just, I know what that weight feels like."

One day, a friend introduced him to surfing. All the treatments and therapies, nothing compared to the power of the ocean and the peace that comes with it.

"Mindfulness is one of the most powerful things to get through some of our issues, whether how small or how big. And there's only a few environments in the world where you can be really mindful of the time and the present moment and it's out there," Manzi said.

"Because some days when it's big and you're not present and you're not practicing mindfulness you get steamrolled."

Manzi moved to Folly Beach and found a group needing more than they were receiving, fellow veterans.

"I always wanted to be back around a bunch of vets. I wanted to find a way to give back," he said. "I would see all these examples of things that, of programs that were started for veterans. And I was like, I know one that will definitely work and help, and that's surfing, teaching veterans and their families how to surf."

The group now extends into the dozens, veterans and their families spend Saturday mornings hanging 10, sharing stories and finding a new level of strength.

"Yeah, I'm not in the same place I was seven years ago. There was a flyer that came out and said come out surfing and I thought, 'That's crazy,'" said veteran Mike Lovett.

"He wouldn't give up on me, and that's huge for us vets somebody who won't give up on you. We talk about everybody having your six. That man has our six."

It’s not just for vets, their families are also welcome. It’s a rare chance for them to create a new positive normal.

"You can put a family in the environment to kind of give them an environment to heal in, and to give them an area where they can come out and just practice every week. They get stronger as a unit," Manzi said.

Mike Lovett's wife Becca is a believer.

"Slowly but surely, the trust and the connections with the amazing people and the excitement of the waves. He's just returned my husband to me. He's just come out of his shell," she said.

"It's a healing thing for us because you get out there and it's just peace. The nightmares are gone, the flashbacks are gone. All you feel is the ocean underneath you, and you're just free," Lovett said.

It's a feeling these men haven’t felt in a long long time.

The foundation just returned from Guatemala where ten veterans were taken on an all-expenses paid trip to surf outside their box, outside the country. The groups also gave back doing charity work in area villages.

Vets and families of vets are welcome to join the group on Folly Beach every Saturday morning. Surf's up at 10 a.m. on 3rd West Street. For more information, visit the Warrior Surf website.

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