One Wave at a Time

Xavier Bianchi ’20 helps teach other veterans to surf

Staff Sgt. Xavier Bianchi ’20 served in the U.S. Army for eight years in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and was deployed to Afghanistan twice. He left the Army in 2015 due to injuries relating to combat.

Although surfing was a passion and he had surfed since he was a kid, Bianchi was told he would never surf again because of his injuries. Bianchi credits Operation Surf in Southern California, an organization that works with veterans, with helping him surf again.

“When I paddle out, all the bad things wash away,” he said.

He and a group of veterans decided Northern California veterans needed their own surfing group. In 2017, they started Veteran Surf Alliance, a nonprofit that helps veterans struggling with PTSD and transitioning from the military to civilian life. VSA teaches veterans to surf in Santa Cruz and Pacifica.

“It’s easy to indulge in self pity, but when you see guys missing limbs going out into the waves, you say, ‘I can do this,’” said Bianchi.

Today, Bianchi is a board member for Veteran Surf Alliance, and he helps teach at learn-to-surf events, like one held this past Veterans Day. Ben Kahae ’19, a logistics manager with the Off The Grid food-truck company who also served in the Army, surfs with Bianchi. “Xavier got me out here, and it was the best thing that happened to me,” said Kahae.

The Best Medicine

John Straznickas, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration in San Francisco who also surfs, says surfing is the best medicine for some vets. “For the past five years, I’ve been trying to get surfing as part of the therapy at the VA,” said Straznickas.

How does surfing help veterans? Straznickas says there are several factors — the ocean environment, the way surfers have to focus on the moment, and the community created by those who surf. “Isolation is such a killer,” he said.

For Bianchi, a communication studies major and member of the Lambda Pi Eta honor society, surfing has been the answer.

“I struggle every day, but surfing has saved my life, and I want to share it,” said Bianchi.

Surfers Unite

Bianchi uses a custom longboard with the logo of his unit, the 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry Parachute Regiment, on it.

In May, Bianchi graduates, and he has been accepted into the MBA program at Stanford.

“But today,” he said, “I surf.”

— By Mary McInerney, USF News

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