Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
The mission, as James McFadden recalls it, was supposed to be a quick in-and-out. He and his team of U.S. Navy SEALs would fly to a small town in South Sudan to evacuate a dozen American citizens trapped amid clashes between warring factions.
No big deal, he thought. This was the sort of operation that McFadden, then a 30-year-old petty officer second class, had rehearsed scores of times in his five years as a SEAL. On December 21, 2013, he and his team took off in an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from their base on the Horn of Africa.
They began taking gunfire 30 seconds before touchdown. The first few rounds sounded harmless, like rocks being tossed at a metal sheet. McFadden remained unruffled.
Then, in an instant, they descended into a hailstorm of bullets – fired from large-caliber, belt-fed guns mounted on pickup trucks – that punched into the Osprey.
Oh shit, thought McFadden, as a bullet snapped past his head.
The door gunner, shot in his armored chest plate, was the first to go down. McFadden’s lead petty officer took a bullet in the back as he tried to help the first injured man.
The next to fall was McFadden’s fire team leader.
“We were in a steel coffin,” he recalls, “and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
McFadden jumped up to help. As he did, he took two rounds in his right leg.
He dropped to the floor of the Osprey, he says, “like a sack of rock.”
A rocket-propelled grenade flew past. He turned to a fellow SEAL and laughed. “Fuck,” he said. “This is it, dude.”
As the pilots hastily ascended to escape the attack, a fellow SEAL cinched a tourniquet around McFadden’s right thigh. With his bleeding stanched, McFadden took stock of the cabin. Everyone seemed to be bleeding. The deck was covered in blood.
He and the other wounded SEALs eventually were medevaced to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. All of them would survive. When he regained consciousness, two days later, McFadden learned that his right leg had been amputated.
Immediately, his mind went to the ocean.
Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he began surfing at age 6. Before joining the Navy, he had spent two years surfing in Tahiti and on the Gold Coast of Australia.
“Surfing centers my life,” he says. “It’s the ocean, and everything the ocean has to offer.”
As he contemplated the bandaged stump that had been his right leg, he figured his days of catching waves were over.
There goes surfing for me, he thought. I’m screwed.
Kyle Buckett, a fellow SEAL, first saw McFadden surf a year before his injury. Buckett, a fellow surfer, was amazed.
Wow, he thought. This guy is good.
Then he saw McFadden surf some more.
Holy crap. This guy is really, really good.
Awe gave way to friendship and a bunch of shared surf sessions, before both men were called on overseas deployments.
Soon after McFadden lost his leg, a mutual SEAL buddy phoned Buckett to tell him the bad news. It sent his mind reeling, wondering what it would be like to lose a leg.
How would that affect my family? What would I do? How would I be able to have the outlet in surfing that I’ve had for the last 10 years?
“That night, I started going into a dark place,” Buckett recalls.
Man, I wish I could do something, he thought.
His desire to help McFadden was tempered by the realization that the wounded SEAL faced months of medical treatment before he could get back into the ocean. And Buckett was deployed in the Middle East. He had to focus on his mission.
After six months of rehabilitation at a military hospital in Texas, McFadden returned to the Naval Special Warfare headquarters in San Diego, hoping to achieve the near-impossible: deploying with the SEALs again, even with a prosthetic leg. Part of his physical-fitness regimen included getting back on a surfboard at a weekly surfing clinic run by the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
It was there he met Alex West, a fellow SEAL who had served on 15 combat tours. West, who also loved to surf, was a volunteer instructor.
A few weeks earlier, West had been on the water off the coastal town of Del Mar with a Marine who had lost his leg. It was a picture-perfect Southern California morning, and as West looked over at the Marine, he saw a big grin on his face.
“Yeah, man,” West said. “It’s beautiful out.”
“That’s not why I’m smiling,” the Marine replied.
West shot him a quizzical look.
“I’m smiling because when I’m out here, nobody is staring at me as the guy missing a leg,” the Marine said. “And when I catch a wave, I don’t feel any more pain.”
The hospital clinic had a bunch of donated surfboards of the sort you could buy in any surf shop. West knew that if veterans who were missing a limb, or who were paralyzed, wanted to surf with the same intensity as they did before their injuries, they would need customized boards — ones that sloped inward so their leg stumps wouldn’t slide off, ones with handles for guys who couldn’t stand, ones with modified fin placement for stabilization.
The Marine’s comment had inspired West, who has been in the Navy for 19 years. On his drive home, he had stopped at a bookstore and bought a copy of a book called Nonprofit Kit for Dummies. That night, he poured a cup of coffee and started to plan the way a SEAL might prepare for a combat mission.
He had a name – One More Wave – and a purpose: to design and customize surfboards for any wounded veteran who wanted one. But figuring it all out – from how to vet applications from people seeking boards to actually getting them built – weighed on him. He didn’t have any experience in setting up a nonprofit business. His expertise was leading men in combat.
What he did understand was the power of surfing to heal. He began surfing 11 years ago when he started to exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety disorder and traumatic brain injury – all a result of his numerous combat deployments. “No matter what the conditions were, no matter the struggles I was having, when I came out of the water, I always felt better,” he says.
When Buckett, with his shaved head and thick biceps, returned from his deployment, he learned about what West was trying to do.
One day, he walked into West’s office. “Hey, I’m Kyle,” he said. “I’ve got to help you.”
Most nonprofit organizations that assist wounded veterans are headed by people who have served previously in the military, or by those who’ve never worn a uniform. One More Wave is different: West and Buckett, who run it together, remain active-duty SEALs.
Both are senior chief petty officers who have full-time jobs within the Naval Special Warfare Command, where they are involved in initiatives to support SEAL teams that are deployed or in training. By night, however, they sit at their respective kitchen tables, crack open their laptops and review applications from injured veterans seeking adaptive boards. They work on designs for those they have accepted, and they strategize about how to grow their small nonprofit, learning as they go and helping each other avoid mistakes. They often toil past midnight, maintaining the same urgent tempo they did when they were stationed overseas.
“I can’t get it off my mind,” says West, who wears glasses and appears more like a 37-year-old businessman than one of our nation’s most elite warriors. “I’m obsessed. I want to get home, and I want to just start working.”
On weekends, they climb into a van donated by a meat company – they call it the “Porkchop Express” – and head to beaches around San Diego with veterans whom they’ve outfitted, and those whose boards are in development. Before they build their grantees’ boards, West and Buckett like to observe them on the waves so they can see what needs to be customized.
West and Buckett want each board to feel personal and unique beyond its adaptive characteristics. They ask veterans what they wish to see when they’re paddling into the ocean. Some of the boards they design are decorated with camouflage patterns and unit insignia. Some feature cartoon characters and palm trees to evoke smiles and happy memories. And others are inscribed with the names of fallen comrades. McFadden opted for irreverent: His green-and-white board is emblazoned with a large rendering of Jack Nicholson’s crazed character in The Shining, his favorite movie.
Many of the boards bear the initials CKIV at the tail – in honor of Charles Keating IV, a SEAL friend of Buckett’s who was killed in action in northern Iraq in 2016. He was a fan of One More Wave, and the organization has been supported by the sales of T-shirts with his Rambo-esque visage that are produced by a clothing company in the San Diego area.
West and Buckett don’t actually build the boards. For that, they rely on a professional shaper, Micah Shannahan, who shaves Styrofoam planks into the appropriate size, applies artwork provided by West, and then coats the boards with fiberglass resin.
Getting the small details right – the slope of the board’s tip or the placement of fins – can make the difference between merely decent and great surfing for a disabled veteran. And better surfing, West and Buckett believe, means better therapy.
“What I really wanted wasn’t so much to get everybody out there, like lollipops and gumdrops, and get a couple of people into a couple of waves,” West says. “I want some of these guys and girls to push their surfing, to go for the big waves, so that they have more of those moments of where they are not feeling their pain.”
McFadden, whose right leg was amputated above the knee, balances on his left knee and his stump. His Jack Nicholson board has extra foam, to provide greater buoyancy, and four fins, instead of three, for more stability. It allows him to once again execute the deft surfer’s move of turning while he is on the waves.
“First time that happened, I was stoked,” he says. “It was huge.”
The goal of achieving “the stoke” – a sense of pride and happiness that lasts well after he has left the water – draws him to the ocean whenever he has a break from his Navy duties. “Getting on the waves is the best therapy,” he says. “Nothing better.”
When One More Wave started, West’s goal was to build an efficient production operation: get cool, customized surfboards in the hands of wounded warriors quickly. So far, West and Buckett have provided, or are in the process of creating, 100 boards. As their enterprise has grown, they have unexpectedly created something else: a community.
Several of the active-duty troops and veterans who have received One More Wave boards gather regularly for Saturday surf sessions. They stack their prosthetics on the beach, pull on their custom wetsuits and help each other into the water. And then they pull off feats many able-bodied surfers could only dream of.
“It’s great to see the guys doing really cool stuff on their boards,” Buckett says. “But it’s even more gratifying to see how surfing together has kindled friendships. We’ve got this whole big family of guys who are supporting each other, who are having fun together.”
In August 2017, after almost two years of building boards and community, West and Buckett took four of their surfers to Hawaii for a major competition on Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach. They were finally ready, they believed, to take on some of the world’s best adaptive surfers.
McFadden, now a petty officer first class, was scheduled to make the trip, but he had to cancel at the last minute. He had received orders to deploy, becoming one of just a small handful of Special Operations troops with leg amputations to return to the battlefield.
“I love surfing, but the thing I love even more is being a SEAL,” he told West.
Even without McFadden, the One More Wave team cleaned up in Hawaii, sweeping the competition’s wounded warrior category.
As their buddies rode the waves, West and Buckett watched admiringly from the beach. All of the late nights and weekends they spent to build their organization – time they could have devoted to relaxing after years of combat – felt even more worthwhile. They were amazed by what they had created, but even more so by what they were seeing.
“It’s not us, it’s them,” West said. “They show us what it means to be strong, what it means to never give up.”