Waves of Empowerment helps veterans with war wounds

Articles, Home Front, Veterans |

Organizations across the country deploy service animals to aid veterans struggling with the physical and psychological wounds of war. However, one Escondido, California-based group has separated itself from the pack by offering ocean-based therapy sessions featuring a surfing canine, according to Today. The organization, called Waves of Empowerment, pairs former service members with human instructors who not only teach them how to ride the waves but also work to rebuild their self-confidence and offer strategies for coping with problems stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Additionally, most participants interact with a special service animal named Ricochet who lends essential support as they navigate new emotional and physical territory.

Making waves
Retired Staff Sgt. Randall Dexter returned from his second and final tour in Iraq in 2012. Upon arrival, he was assigned to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, where he was treated for a traumatic brain injury. An improvised explosive device had rocked Dexter's Army unit, leaving him unsteady. While in treatment, doctors diagnosed the veteran with PTSD, further shaking his battle-worn psyche.

"It was all brutal," Dexter told Today. "I was contemplating suicide and was a hot mess."

After a year of prescription-based treatment failed to move things forward, Dexter reached out to a nonprofit that connected veterans with service dogs. Soon after, he met his canine match: Ricochet. The results were almost immediate.

"The minute Ricochet came up to me, my wife – who's also my caregiver – noticed a big change in me," the former Army officer explained. "Ricochet has this amazing softness in her eyes. It was definitely a turning point when I met her."

However, Dexter soon found out she had much more to offer than most service animals.

Waves of Empowerment helps veterans heal through surf-based therapy sessions.Waves of Empowerment helps veterans heal through surf-based therapy sessions.

A buoyant beginning
Judy Fridono enrolled Ricochet in service dog training soon after she was born in January 2008. However, the golden retriever showed little interest in the instruction and instead spent sessions chasing wildlife. Even though Ricochet ultimately earned her service animal certification, Fridono was reluctant to deploy her, as her rambunctious behavior could present problems for most patients. Still, the animal found work with a San Diego-based organization called Paws'itive Teams. Ricochet also started learning how to surf and, at 15 months, competed in the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge, earning third place.

Her performance in the event, along with a viral video that showed her riding along with a quadriplegic surfer named Patrick Ivison, caught the attention of news outlets across the country. By the time Dexter met Ricochet in 2013, she had worked with more than 50 veterans and raised tens of thousands of dollars for health organizations across the country through surfing events. Earlier this month, the dog surpassed the $500,000 mark, The San Diego Tribune reported.

Today, she continues to help disabled Americans across the country through Waves of Empowerment, which grew out of her connection with Dexter.

"She gave me freedom and gave me my life back," the Army veteran told Today. 

The program now staffs trained therapeutic surfers who help former service members and others overcome their problems out on the open ocean, just as Ricochet did when she partnered with the retired sergeant four years ago.