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.