CAMP PENDLETON — Chris Fesmire has heli-skied some of the steepest terrain in Alaska and Chile.
But the retired sergeant caught the biggest adrenaline rush of his life Friday at San Onofre State Beach when, with the help of buddy and fellow Marine Josh Rubinstein, he caught his first wave.
Fesmire, who lost both legs in 2004 after stepping into a minefield while on a short-range patrol in Iraq, was carried to the surf by Rubinstein, who served with him in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines at Camp Pendleton in 2002.
At the shoreline they met up with Keith Lovgren, a veteran and co-founder of Waves of Impact, a nonprofit that was holding a surf and paddleboard camp at San Onofre, on Camp Pendleton’s northern end.
Lovgren handed them the surfboard they would both ride. Fesmire scooted to the front of the board while Rubinstein got on the back. They paddled toward the breaking surf and lined themselves up.
“I felt the wave take us,” said Fesmire, 38. “My stomach rose up in my back and my mind went blank and I was one with the wave. That was the most endorphin rush I’ve ever had doing a sport.”
Fesmire, of South Park, Colo., was one of 25 wounded and ill warriors taking part in the second surf camp — which runs through the weekend — put on by Oceanside-based Waves of Impact and the Semper Fi Fund. Participants included veterans from all military branches and from Semper Fi Fund’s rehabilitative athletics program, Team Semper Fi, which uses water therapy to help recovering veterans.
Waves of Impact, founded by Lovgren and Josh Harper of Laguna Niguel, sets up surf camps for wounded warriors and children with disabilities. Lovgren and Harper met at a children’s surf camp and realized the benefit surfing could have on veterans.
“This is our biggest event of the year,” Harper said.
The Semper Fi Fund –started by two Marine wives at Camp Pendleton in 2003 at the start of the war in Iraq– helps wounded and ill veterans and their families transition to civilian life. Semper Fi has provided $160 million to 18,000 veterans from all service branches.
“Some of the guys feel limited by their injuries,” said Sam Tickle, a former Navy helicopter pilot and now director of Team Semper Fi. “Being out here is equal parts camaraderie –it’s being around fellow veterans that get it– and it’s learning a new skill.”
Volunteers spent hours in the water Friday giving veterans surfing tips and making sure they used the correct techniques. There were high fives and cheers from the beach as veterans and volunteers from both groups watched the surfers ride the waves.
Lovgren, who served in the for five years, worked with Stephanie Purpish, 31, of Magnolia, Ohio.
Purpish left the Navy on a medical retirement after 12 years of service. She was one of five women attacked in a sexual assault in 2012 while serving in a small Navy detachment at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C, she said.
Following the incident, the then-pregnant Purpish required several surgeries and was severely traumatized, she said. She still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The case is still under investigation, Purpish said.
Lovgren set her board on the sand and pointed it toward the waves. He showed her how to keep a solid stance– with her feet shoulder-width apart.
Then he taught her to lie down, find the perfect balance point and then pop up.
As Purpish rode her first wave, Lovgren let out a holler in the water behind her. It was her first time surfing. But it won’t be her last, she said.