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Sunday, June 23, 2019

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Wounded veteran's surfing dream comes true with help of man

Wounded veteran's surfing dream comes true with help of man


HOUMA, La. (AP) — A wounded war veteran's dream of surfing came true after a Lockport man took a retired Army Ranger and his wife to Barbados last month.

Charles Claybaker, who medically retired as a staff sergeant from the Army in 2011 after being injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010, met David Acosta, of Lockport, last August at a Wounded War Heroes fishing rodeo in Venice. The pair bonded over their love of family and the outdoors — especially a love of the water, Acosta said.

When Acosta found out Claybaker needed to have a back surgery, which could potentially prevent the veteran from surfing, he said he knew he had to act fast, so he planned the trip to Barbados for Claybaker and his wife, Kandice.

"He didn't appear to struggle with the surfing, but I'm sure it had to be a challenge for him," Acosta said. "I was so impressed to see a guy that was so mentally determined to surf, and the last day we surfed, he actually surfed on a real surfboard. He got off of the longboard and started catching waves with the real surfboard."

Claybaker said learning to surf was a little difficult, but that he had always been the kind of person to try to overcome any kind of hindrance he had and even overcame his fear of heights by joining an airborne unit in the Army.

"For me, I miss being in the doors of the helicopter and flying over the treetops and landing next to a building, kicking down the door and arresting all the bad guys," Claybaker said. "I loved that. That was my favorite part. For me, getting hurt, I lost all of that."

For Claybaker, surfing was being free on something he was controlling, something fast with an element of danger, he said.

"For me having that feeling back, I can't express how great of a feeling that is for me to have that again, to be able to go fast. And Dave made that happen. It was an incredible experience."

One memory of the trip that stood out for Acosta was when Kandice Claybaker joined them by the water while Claybaker was catching a wave.

"I was sitting back behind him, just sitting on my board, and when he caught a wave and his wife had shown up, you could see her standing on the rocks with the wind blowing in her hair in the distance," Acosta said. "Not only was he getting to do a dream of his, but she got to witness it and be there in that moment, too."

"I've always been very grateful for my military experience, and I'm just extremely grateful to Wounded War Heroes and Dave Acosta for providing this opportunity for my wife and I," Claybaker said. "Without them, it just would have never happened."

During Claybaker's military career, he served three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He said growing up, he was that kid who dressed as an Army soldier for Halloween each year.

"I loved being a Ranger," Claybaker said. "If you ripped me open right now, there'd be a little G.I. Joe doing pushups."

The 33-year-old and his wife now run the Claybaker D.U.S.T.O.F.F. Foundation, a nonprofit in St. Petersburg, Fla., that assists veterans during times of hardship. The organization has distributed more than 150 backpacks full of survival supplies to homeless veterans in Florida and is working on the construction of a memorial park in honor of military personnel from Pinellas County, Fla., who were killed in action.

"I got hurt following my dream," Claybaker said, "but I don't regret a single day."