Page last updated at 09:51 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 10:51 UK

Surf therapy for stressed veterans

By Louise Walter
BBC Cornwall

Rich Emerson
Rich Emerson believes surfing can help other veterans with PSTD

On the beach at Gwithian Downs near Hayle in Cornwall, Rich Emerson is teaching a surf lesson.

His students are two fellow war veterans and all three are suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after combat tours.

The 43-year-old, who lives in Hayle, served with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars as a tank crewman in 1991, during the first Gulf war in Iraq.

By his own admission, he still has bad days: "It's hard to get out of bed and get motivated to do anything - even as far as having a shower and something to eat and drink."

At his lowest point, Rich says he had about four "bad" days a week and sometimes felt suicidal.

He began surfing about 12 years ago, after moving to Cornwall from Southampton, and says it is surfing that helped him to control the depression which previously ruled his life.

I'm trying to get them to step out of the box and see there's something more in life
Rich Emerson

Rich is now learning carpentry at college, working for a local company building wooden chalets in Hayle and is no longer taking anti-depressants.

When he surfs, he says he feels such happiness ("stoked" in surfing jargon) and such a connection with nature, it helps him "feel at ease, a detachment from the problems of getting through the system of society".

Rich plans to help other veterans achieve the same high after volunteering at Operation Amped in California - a surf camp specifically for war veterans. "It was such an inspiration to me and I want to give that to more people," he said.

He has now organised a similar event in Cornwall for September. Operation Amped UK will offer about 20 former servicemen two days of surfing at Gwithian Downs, near Hayle.

Veterans with PTSD talk about how surfing helps them

"The aim is to give the guys a bit of a break because I know how it feels to be stuck in a rut," he said.

"I'm trying to get them to step out of the box and see there's something more in life".

As well as getting veterans "stoked" on the waves, Rich will advise fellow PTSD sufferers how they can access help.

Rich says he has been lucky enough to receive treatment from Combat Stress, The Warrior Programme and a new NHS trial scheme set up in Cornwall, but in general he says veterans "come across help by pure luck".

One of Rich's first surf students is Martin Webster, a 32-year-old former soldier who also lives in Cornwall and who served in Iraq with 1st Battalion, Light Infantry.

He sees Operation Amped UK as a very important step for PTSD sufferers.

"What you've got here is a fantastic ocean, this big positive force and what we're trying to do with PTSD is get rid of the negative thoughts," Mr Webster said.

"The greatest way to do that is to get into the ocean and let everything be absorbed by it, so I'm behind Rich 110%."

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