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Riding the Waves with Rusty Moran
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Riding the Waves with Rusty Moran
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I'm reading
Riding the Waves with Rusty Moran
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Articles
16 January 2023

Riding the Waves with Rusty Moran

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn. Through sharing his love of the ocean, former big-wave surfer Rusty Moran is transforming the lives of returned Australian Defence Force members affected by post-traumatic stress.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

At age 50, Rusty Moran has seen his fair share of waves. A former big-wave surfer, Rusty grew up with an alcoholic father and knows first-hand the healing power of the ocean. “All my stars aligned and I’ve finally got something that’s my life’s purpose – to help others,” he says. The Japanese call it ikigai: the intersection of your skills and passion with something the world needs. Rusty heads up the Veteran Surf Project, a program designed to support war veterans’ mental health through surfing.

They call it the war at home. Suicide rates in ex-serving ADF men are 24 per cent higher than the general population and 102 per cent higher for women. Post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] is almost twice as common in ADF personnel as it is in the general population. Reintegrating into civilian life can be an unexpected challenge for veterans: loss of adrenaline combined with the trauma of war and even a diminished sense of purpose pushes some to end their lives.

Rusty’s father enlisted in World War II at the age of 14. On returning home, he struggled with PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol. He was constantly in a state of fight-or-flight. Then when Rusty was five years old, his dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “AA saved his life, got him on track and saved our family,” Rusty says. “He modelled what a good social support network among men looked like.”

Recovering alcoholics would stay at the Moran family home while Rusty’s dad would help them find work and get back on their feet. “I’ve chosen to do this program for veterans because of my dad’s service and also because of my own mental health journey,” he says. Rusty was a professional big-wave surfer, “Chasing adrenaline rush and athleticism.” He then worked as a property developer, which he describes as a toxic environment. Economic recession led to a downward spiral. Rusty shut down for years, unable to answer emails or text messages. A friend suggested he might have PTSD from childhood.

In 2017, Rusty opened a surf school in his home town of Gerringong, on the New South Wales south coast. “I saw how much joy surfing brought people who were struggling with their own mental health,” he says. Rusty could see in them what he’d seen in the mirror years before: the blank look, suddenly brought to life after surfing in the ocean. A doctor who was a member of the surf school began to refer war veterans to Rusty for lessons. They recognised what is becoming increasingly apparent in the research on PTSD: non-pharmaceutical therapies are more effective for long-term treatment outcomes. Rusty launched Veteran Surf Project in January 2021.

The first thing Rusty teaches veterans is how to fall well. In surfing, “You are going to fail more times than you’ll succeed,” he says. Veterans have been trained to take orders and to achieve a goal within strict parameters, often with matters of life or death. Failure is not an option. But Rusty tells them that when they fall off their board, “We’re going to have a laugh at each other and at ourselves,” as permission to fail is a huge part of both surfing and being human.

After each surf, the group makes a circle with their boards on the beach. “Rusty’s kumbaya circle,” he says with a laugh. He tells a story about asking a female veteran how she felt after a surf. “I don’t know,” she replied, before acknowledging that she’d been trained not to think about how she was feeling.

Rusty is writing a thesis on surf therapy for war veterans; Australia-based research on the topic is limited. “Several common elements emerged from this study between military culture and surfing culture,” Rusty says. “The mission of the day’s challenge resulting in an adrenaline rush is a concept familiar to veterans, creating new family or brotherhood by interacting with other veteran participants and civilian surfing instructors.” Storytelling and story-making is important, as surfers often spend their time waiting for waves recounting previous surf adventures and planning future ones. Rusty says that of the 150 program participants to date, five have told him that the community and reframing opportunity that surfing has provided has prevented them from taking their own lives.

Rusty reports that participants in the Veteran Surf Project are better equipped to recognise and respond to waves of mental health challenges that come their way. “If someone’s experiencing a depressive wave, they know they better look after themselves and go easy for a little while until that wave passes,” he says. “We can talk about ourselves in a positive way – I’m a beautiful human spirit, but right now I’m low on energy and need to plug into a charger over the next few days. I need a surf. I’m not a loser or a messed-up unit, all I need to do is plug in.”


This story appears in Issue 71 of Dumbo Feather, exploring Beyond Ego. Find out more about Riding the Waves with Rusty by purchasing your copy online.

You can learn more about the Veteran Surf Project and how to support their important work here: veteransurfproject.org

Article by Cherie Gilmour, photographs by Rob Palmer

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