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Stephanie & Annie | Warrior Surf Foundation

Founded by American Combat Veterans and surfers in May of 2015 on Folly Beach, SC, Warrior Surf Foundation addresses post-service transition challenges such as PTSD, moral injury, survivor's guilt, and TBI through surf therapy, yoga, wellness sessions, and community. The program is available to Veterans and active service members with psychological and/or physical disabilities. Psychological disabilities include, but are not limited to, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, related mood or anxiety disorders, post-service transition challenges, moral injury, survivor's guilt, and TBI.

Withitgirl and Stephanie Dasher (Director at Warrior Surf Foundation) meet during the ISTO 2021 conference in Cornwall- Women + Surf panel discussion. Months later after a heartfelt zoom conversation with Stepanie, we began outlining our interview and profile to bring this inspiring Surf therapy story to more withitwomen & withitgirls!

Photo by Jordan Dasher ( 2021) Stephanie Dasher, New York

Photo by Stephanie Dasher (2020) Holly Hillman, Folly Beach

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a Veteran, your journey to Surfing, and what it has done for you.

If you’d asked me 17 years ago when I just graduated high school where I’d be I couldn’t have guessed it would be as the Executive Director of Warrior Surf Foundation. I knew that when I graduated high school I wanted to go to college. Getting a degree was really important to me, but I was also a little bored at school. My plan was to attend community college and then head to a university. My decision to join the Navy was largely spurred on by my impatience with my mom filling out FAFSA paperwork, my dad’s service, and some delusions of grandeur.

In the time it took for my mom to find the tax documents to fill out the FAFSA forms I’d already taken the ASVAB and been promised a hefty signing bonus. It was a few short weeks before I left for boot camp and then off I went through the nuclear power pipeline.

Just two years into my enlistment I met and married my husband who I’ve been married to for fourteen and half years. He is himself a combat Veteran and really the impetus for my involvement in Warrior Surf and relearning to surf as an adult.

How did you discover Surf Therapy? ISTO? Warrior Surf and becoming the ED

I first discovered Surf Therapy through my husband's therapist at the VA. He was seeking treatment for PTSD, and his therapist mentioned Warrior Surf Foundation. Having grown up myself around water, including the ocean, I was instantly intrigued. As soon as he told me about it, I said, "Oh, I'm signing us up," to which he replied, "Yea, no." So, of course, I signed us up anyway.

Our introduction to Warrior Surf was back in 2017 when the foundation was still reasonably young, and Andy Manzi, the founder, personally called every participant. At that time, the program was half of the length of the current 12-week program and held on the weekend only. The first Saturday we showed up, I was smitten. For me, there's nothing more calming than slipping into a body or a vessel of water. My husband, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction.

From day one, he hated everyone and everything about Veterans and Warrior Surf. The most memorable part of those early days was him thinking that all the Veterans were vetting him and just really being resistant to the whole process. There were only two things that kept him coming back each week. The first was that, despite his objections, I could see it working, and the second was the challenge of surfing- he found something he wasn't instantly really good at, and that pushed him to stay when what he wanted to do was run away.

Right out of the gate, my enthusiasm for Warrior Surf came from a place of seeing the power of surf therapy in my own life and from my inner desire to create. I approached Andy and essentially begged him to let me help in some way. I remember saying, "Hey, I'm a nerd; you've got problems that require nerd solutions. Would you please let me do something-anything? "

Photo by Stephanie Dasher, 2021,Andy Manzy, Folly Beach

Over time I started working alongside Andy with the simple goal of turning his vision into a reality. From the moment I started, even before we ever committed it to paper, Andy knew the goal was to develop the best surf therapy program in the world. With that ultimate goal set, we had distance and direction and so a path to our final destination. ISTO has been a big part of that goal. To participate alongside a cohort of people and organizations who genuinely believe in the power of Surf Therapy is both energizing and inspiring. I'm beyond grateful to be surrounded and supported by people who are as forward thinking as ISTO is.

Like everyone else in the non-profit world, we put our heads down and went to work. When the mission is this important, you don't have time to look up or take your eyes off the wheel. Over time though, it became apparent that Andy, having started this thing in 2015, was ready for a bit of break. Ultimately he decided to step down as the Executive Director, and both he and the board asked me to fill his position. I don't think I've ever been so honored in my life. There is something particularly humbling when another human being leaves you with their life's work. It's not a task you shoulder lightly.

What is the back history of the program?

Warrior Surf was founded in 2015 by Veterans for Veterans. To date, we've served over 500 Veterans. Our free 12-week program is open to all Veterans, active-duty members, Coast Guard, and reservists.

Our program is predicated on the novel approach of combining the experiential activity of Surf Therapy with Evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is just a fancy way to describe the idea that everyone has areas of importance no matter who you are or your socio-economic or cultural background. When we identify and act on those areas, we feel fulfilled then we're better able to handle what life throws at us. Our Wellness curriculum is centered around this notion and gives Veterans skills in positive psychology, mindfulness, and resiliency that ultimately improves their lives.

When Veterans go through the 12-week program, they participate in weekly semi-private surf sessions, weekly private wellness coaching sessions, and 1:1 yoga. We also provide access to community surf and yoga nearly every Saturday of the year. Formatting our program in this way means that when Veterans graduate our program, they aren't "kicked to the curb" but instead placed into an alumni status and asked to continue participating by becoming peer mentors and volunteering. This process has created a sustainable, life-giving community of Veterans, spouses, caregivers, children, and community members who support one another.

Photo by Stephanie Dasher, 2020, Chris Campbell _ Veteran, Folly Beach

Warrior Surf Foundation is considered a contributing member of ISTO (International Surf Therapy Organization). We want to continue to be a part of the team of organizations that help drive the development of surf therapy programs. Presently we are working on publishing a research Study with Citadel College and MUSC that will highlight the efficacy of our surf therapy program in treating PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The preliminary numbers from the study are very encouraging. They show that not only do we have a very high completer rate compared to other evidence-based programs but that our non-completers are getting more sessions than a non-completer would in a typical evidence-based program. We're looking forward to sharing the final results with ISTO and continuing to contribute to the healthy growth of Surf Therapy around the world.

Photo by Stephanie Dasher, 2021, Holly Hillman, Folly Beach

Women Veterans what are the challenges and the transformational aspects of Surf Therapy? Barriers to entry? What kind of voice do Women veterans bring.

If someone were to ask me what was one of the most beneficial aspects of Warrior Surf, I'd have to say it's our choice to serve all Veterans from all eras. But, of course, you might say that that's especially true for our women Veterans.

The thing about the ocean is that it's the great equalizer. It doesn't matter who you are or your background; it can and will humble you.

When you paddle out into the line-up, you stop existing inside society's labels and begin an existence centered around your ability to sync up with the ocean and be entirely present in the moment. That can be a profound experience for women Veterans who have learned to fit inside a military mold that isn't always healthy.

When we think about the barrier to entry for surfing, the surf culture and image is probably the biggest issue for most women. Media makes it easy to believe that you need to be a very in shape man to surf when the reality is that surfing can look like a lot of different things. It can be a longboard or a shortboard, and it can be small waves or big waves. The only thing that matters is that you're having fun, and you're allowing yourself to be totally present in the moment.

The Surf Therapy's mindset first allows our program and our staff to embody a culture uncommonly healing for female Veterans. Our staff understands and respects that women have different traumas and experiences in the military, but also that most women want to be considered equals. For that reason, on our beach, there isn't anything anyone needs to prove. Man or woman, we're going to say the same to everyone, "You're enough because you exist."

Breaking down that barrier is the first step in healing for many women. Simply knowing that you don't have to do extra just to fit in can be freeing and creates an opportunity to look a little deeper to see what else you might be able to let go of. Ultimately, we're building a safe space where women Veterans can voice their experiences, and their brothers and sisters validate those experiences, so we can all learn to be better together.

Have we got it all figured out? Absolutely not! We're still living and learning the lessons every day. We have so much more to learn from our Women Veterans in how we can better serve them-but we are listening.

A Veteran's Surf Journey: Annie O.

I have been in military life for 13 years, with 9 years of active duty as an armed reconnaissance helicopter pilot. During my time in service, I was often the only woman on the team, and when I took my first command, I was the only female and senior ranking officer in my unit. Though there were leadership challenges that could not have been replicated in any other environment, I always felt at home in this male dominated field. Being a Kiowa Warrior pilot in the army was the biggest honor and thrill of my life, and I miss it every day.

Transition out of the military is a milestone that all soldiers must endure- whether it be after 2 years or 20, and every timeline in between. We all have to do it— despite time served, it is an incredibly difficult adjustment for each individual, riddled with unique challenges and often, lonely. When I transitioned out of the Army, I had a hard time finding my “brothers” or my “family” as it is a complete culture shock living life outside of the military structure and institution I had adopted my entire adult life. I had a hard time finding a support system with friends who “get me” and get some of the resident challenges I face— especially with the current events happening in Afghanistan.

Eight months after I moved to a new city—Charleston— I found Warrior Surf. After applying to the program, I was lucky enough to get in a last minute spot that started the next day. Part of me was terrified, as I have a natural aversion to the water and am generally a weak swimmer. But I pushed myself to get up early on a Saturday to show up to a program with a bunch of strangers to push myself out of my comfort zone. And what I found was a welcoming group of people, both men, and women who were incredibly happy to see me and teach me.

I joke because I still don’t know all the names of the volunteers, but if someone says “do you know so and so” I say oh is it the guy with the long hair and the beard?! These volunteers, most veterans themselves, come in to teach us how to surf. Being in the water outside of my comfort zone with someone of shared experiences really put me at ease. Being in the water, discussing tactics and techniques with Aaron often reminds me of lessons in flight school, and it has a lot of parallels. Watching Stephanie and Holly surf waves on the weekends, and listening to their specific adaptations to technique help me conceptualize how and when I need to paddle into waves. Seeing men and women who have adopted this routine into their daily and weekly life inspires me to try and commit to learning something new, and doing something hard.

So now, after completing my 12-week surf session, every Saturday I can, I go to Folly in the morning to get in the ocean and share in this community.

As a female veteran, who felt so used to having my brothers as a big part of my work life and support system, this has been incredibly therapeutic. And I can really say that, even though I’m not the best at surfing (yet), the crew that comes to the beach on a Saturday morning has also become some of my best friends in Charleston. Feeling like I have a “home” and people that care about me and check in on me is invaluable. Something about the ocean and challenging yourself in the company of heroes is just good for the soul.


Additional Information

Photos of Stephanie Dasher in Nicaragua by Mike O Laughlin (2022)

Warrior Surf Foundation Website Instagram

International Surf Therapy Organization Website Instagram

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