By Major David Webb

Although the surfing and military communities have cohabitated the North Shore for decades, surfers and service members have rarely shared their unique cultures with one another until this winter, when soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division spent time and shared experiences with some of the world’s best surfers.  Through these interactions, surfers and soldiers collectively embodied the essence of Hawaiian culture, and both communities were educated and inspired by one another.

Now a soldier myself, I’m privileged to work on Schofield Barracks and to live on the North Shore with a family of my own. I often feel the quiet clash of cultures between the military and surfing communities, and as I sat on the beach watching the Hawaiian Pro surf contest in Haleiwa in November, I thought about how—despite the many similarities between surfers and soldiers—the two groups are missing opportunities to learn from one another and to truly share Hawaii.

So I called family friend Peter King, and told him about an upcoming training event that my unit was doing—a helicopter assault into the Bellows Training Area on the east side of Oahu—and I asked him if any local pro surfers would be interested in observing some of our training and interacting with soldiers.

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Squeezed in between the Sunset Beach and Pipeline contests of the Vans Triple Crown, surfers John John and Ivan Florence, Koa Rothman, and Ross Williams ventured to Bellows to spend a day with the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the 35th Infantry Regiment (also known as the Cacti), from the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks.

The Cacti have a long and distinguished history. Established in Arizona in 1916 to defend the American homeland from threats south of the border, the unit will celebrate its 100th birthday this summer. Cacti soldiers have fought in every major conflict since World War II.  Many of us have deployed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times, and we are currently preparing for potential deployments throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

While at Bellows, Cacti soldiers participated in a series of intense situational training exercises, beginning with a battalion helicopter assault and attack of an enemy-controlled urban objective. Throughout the week, Cacti units continued to train various attack and reconnaissance tasks, preceding the visit from the North Shore surfers.   

When the surfers arrived at the Bellows Training Area, First Lieutenant Kyle Richardson gave each guest a body armor vest and helmet.  Richardson then familiarized the surfers to the soldiers, weapons, and vehicles within his assault platoon, before giving the entire group an operations order. The mission was to neutralize the enemy in a village, and the surfers were assigned as machine gunners (armed with blank ammunition) on armored Humvees.

As the Humvees approached the objective, they were engaged by enemy personnel in vehicles. The surfers returned fire, and the platoon continued movement. In the village, the soldiers dismounted the Humvees and defeated the enemy fighters in the village to accomplish the tactical mission. To complete the training scenario, two of the surfers – John John and Koa – were assessed as casualties, and soldiers evacuated the “wounded” surfers to an aid station where Cacti medics skillfully treated their notional wounds.

“For them to show us everything they do, the training is awesome, really stoked to be able to check this out,” said Florence.

“It seems like they had fun,” said First Sergeant William Brooks, a veteran of 14 combat deployments (eight to Afghanistan and six to Iraq), “but for us, it was awesome to show them what we do.”

In early February, sandwiched between Kelly Slater’s win at the Volcom Pro contest at Pipeline and John John Florence’s win at the Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay, Kelly and John John linked up with a few dozen Cacti soldiers and family members at Ehukai Beach Park on a Saturday afternoon. We were all surprised when Sunny Garcia also joined the session. First Sergeant Brooks was ecstatic, since Sunny has always been his favorite surfer. “I’ve followed his surfing career for 20 years, so to meet him, and talk with him, and surf with him, I was stoked as I could be,” he said.

After brief introductions, Cacti soldiers paddled out to Pupukea with our surfing heroes. The waves weren’t great – 2-3 feet on the Hawaiian scale, far from clean, and I heard Kelly apologize to a few locals for bringing the “insta-crowd” – so I know it was a suboptimal surf session for the professionals; but for the Cacti surfers, it was the session of our lives.

As I reflect the experiences shared between surfers and soldiers, I feel like we – at the risk of sounding cliché and melodramatic – personified the spirit of aloha through our interaction.

As infantry soldiers, our mission is to close with and destroy the enemy, and we are comfortable executing this mission based on years of training and experience.  But to us, paddling into a wave at Pipeline or Waimea in the winter sounds simply superhuman. “We try to be the best in the world at what we do,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ryan O’Connor, the commander of the Cacti as he presented battalion challenge coins and t-shirts to the surfers, “and we look up to you for being the best in the world at what you do!”

Conversely, the surfers showed respect for the risks of our profession. Kelly Slater’s post-surf comments about Cacti soldiers were particularly humbling: “They’re hard core, these guys put their lives on the line.  Our risks are calculated risks for fun. We’re not going to get shot.”

John John Florence echoed these sentiments. “It’s cool to see these guys in the water, they’ve been serving our country,” he said. “They go out and do the gnarliest, scariest stuff. Stuff we all have nightmares about. They go and do that for us. Allowing us to be here and surf these beautiful waves.”

To the surf legends who shared their time and with soldiers serving in Hawaii, it was an honor interact with you as host and guest. Mahalo nui (many thanks) for the education, inspiration, and aloha spirit!

The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent any official position of the Department of Defense.

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