HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Local Utah businesses and community members raised tens of thousands of dollars Friday for a unique healing program that teaches veterans how to surf while bringing them together with other veterans to bond.
On Friday, golfers teed up at the golf course on Hill Air Force Base, getting out for fresh air in mother nature.
Butch Brien, a retired chief master sergeant from the Air Force, made the rounds to the different groups, introducing himself and handing out challenge coins.
The coins said "Operation Surf" on one side. Brien thanked people for golfing in the tournament as he gave them the meaningful memento.
After nearly 30 years in the military with four deployments under his belt, the seasoned CMSAF has dealt with his fair share of trauma.
He can tell you how much going on deployment and fighting in a war changes a person.
"I saw some good friends never come back," he said. "People from Hill Air Force base, people that worked directly for me, people that took their lives with suicide. And it's tough."
Years ago, Brien's team was struggling so they decided to do some morale-building by surfing Camp Pendleton.
For someone who had never surfed before, it was something fun and new for Brien -- not to mention an experience he couldn't get in Utah.
When he got out on the water, Brien described the experience as magical.
"When you get up, there's no better feeling in life," he said. "You're on top of the world. You're riding this real, soft wave."
After that surfing trip, Brien looked online to see if any organizations had programs to teach veterans how to surf. That's when he discovered Operation Surf.
Based out of California, Operation Surf gathers small groups of veterans together, including those wounded and differently-abled, for a week of riding waves and camaraderie.
In July, Brien went through the program himself and successfully got up on a surfboard.
More importantly, he developed a deep bond with his group.
"We just became brothers and sisters, and it felt comfortable to be around one another and then encourage them that you can do that," he said.
The team became so close, Brien said they still meet up over Zoom three times a week.
In 2019, Brien and a close friend recruited others to help put together a golf tournament to raise money for Operation Surf, before Brien had yet to go through the program.
He said their first year, they raised $20,000. A year later, they doubled that amount.
The third annual tournament Friday, with large contributions from title sponsors ReadyWise Inc, Low VA Rates, and J. Fisher Companies, brought in nearly $92,000 for Operation Surf.
"19 veterans will be able to come through our program and experience what we have to offer," said Operation Surf Founder Van Curaza.
Curaza said when he tells other people about this fundraiser at Hill Air Force Base, they jokingly ask if there are surfboards in Utah.
Even if Utah is far from the ocean, it's clear that veterans are close to the heart.
The community is very supportive of veterans, Curaza said.
Curaza said it's important for people to know they're not alone.
"When we help an individual, it helps the family, that helps and supports the community," he said. It creates a ripple effect.
Brien said the tournament will allow veterans from Utah to learn about the program and for them to put people through Operation Surf to get the healing powers of the ocean.
"[To] learn how to surf and have a network and a community like myself and other veterans that have gone through the program," he said. "And show them that it is okay to be not okay, and deal with that, and have a group of people can help you through anything in life."