The Sixth Annual Veteran Surf Alliance Memorial Day Ceremony and Paddle Out  

Vets find camaraderie and connection in the healing waters of the sea.

By Neal Kearney
June 5, 2024

One of the things that makes us human is our tribal nature. Before man was even capable of speech we’ve relied on close knit groups for connection, safety, and sustenance. From external needs, such as protection from the elements, to internal considerations, such as the development of common rules and customs, it is the existence of community that has guided our progress from crude hunter-gatherers to modern global citizens. 

In the context of today’s world, this phenomenon rings particularly true in warfare, where soldiers develop strong bonds with their fellow countrymen in order to survive extreme hardship and inevitable loss on the battlefield. There are few things in life that can bring men and women together on such a deep, tribal level.

Friends and family gathered for a Memorial Day of remembrance in Capitola. Photo-Roger Smith

What about when those who endured such brutality and hardship return home after the smoke has cleared, a dilemma that routinely leaves men and women unprepared to cope with the horrors of PTSD and the herculean struggle inherent in reintegration into civilian life? Who can these veterans turn to once their units are dissolved and they return to a society where few can understand the pain and turmoil wrought by fighting for one’s country better than their brothers-in-arms?

For those involved in the Veteran Surf Alliance (VSA), a good place to start is within another highly tribal endeavor, surfing, where the healing waters of the ocean and stoke inherent in riding waves with good friends can scratch that itch for kinship and community.

To honor the fallen. Photo-Smith

This past Memorial Day, the VSA invited friends and family of the fallen to Capitola for a Paddle Out not only to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation, but to also strengthen the bond of those who survived.

“Memorial Day can be a challenging time for many veterans, especially those who have lost fellow service members in combat or to the war at home,” explained VSA Founder/Director, Sean Meyer.

“By paddling into the ocean, linking arms and exclaiming their names, we honor their legacy together. Then we go for a surf.”

Presided over by Dan Redmon, the opening ceremonies held on the Capitola Esplanade opened with the Marine Corp Color Guard began with a posting of the flags/rifles and a performance of the National Anthem, sung by Brayan Francis. Xaivier Bianchi then provided history and meaning of the Paddle Out, as well as the history and meaning of the Battlefield Cross, a symbolic replacement of a cross, or memorial marker appropriate to an individual service-member’s religion. 

Tribue to the fallen. Photo-Smith

Rob Lackey, leader of the Gunrunner Surf Camp, a branch of the VSA, then spoke to the significance of Memorial Day, encouraging those assembled to remember the fallen as they were in life. After a tribute to Te Hay Sui’s Lorraine Kinnamon by her sister Charmaine, the Color Guard retrieved the national and unit colors and removed them from the ceremony in a tradition referred to as, “Retiring the Colors”. Then veterans, family members, and friends paddled out, formed a circle, and held hands. 

Participants were invited to say the name of a fallen service member or recount a memory of that individual. Then, the circle threw red, yellow, and orange rose petals into the air and splashed seawater, not only to honor those who died, but to celebrate the solidarity of those who survived.

The Paddle-Out. Photo-Brian

“I am proud to be part of this Ohana where we have found the balance between honoring and celebrating the fallen as we come together on this Memorial Day 2024.” Pearl Van, VSA Bay Area Chapter Leader

Local veteran James Sclar was proud to be on hand for this touching day with his fellow soldiers.

“The feelings that come up when we are all together is something that can only be done together,” he said. “There is so much pain in my heart and soul, stuck inside. I can only release these heavy feelings with the help of our community. When we all hold hands and cheer together as we call out the names of our fallen heroes, all the tears come out. That pain is released and the water absorbs and transmutes all that energy into pure love and gratitude.”

Veteran Surf Alliance Founder Sean Meyer. Photo-Smith

The tribal elements of an act such as surfing provide a welcome, familiar, and healing home for our veterans who face the hard task of continuing life after returning from the horrors of combat. For Meyer, this is what makes their event such a powerful experience for those involved.

“After the paddle-out, we return to shore with a renewed outlook on life and we break bread, enjoying each other’s company,” he explains.

“This is the way we defeat mental health demons and live a whole, healthy life. We call it blue mind and this approach to therapy is saving the lives of our veterans.”

If you would like to donate or learn more about Veteran Surf Alliance, go to or check them out on Facebook and Instagram @veteransurfalliance

Capitola was a portrait of American service on Memorial Day. Photo-Smith