Joe has a passion for the water and enjoyed water polo, surfing, and swimming during his childhood growing up in Modesto, a city located in the Central Valley of California. When he became old enough to enlist in the military the Marines initially turned him down. “The Marines said I was too stupid to join their branch,” Joe laughed. “It’s a fun tidbit especially where I ended up in my military service.” He enlisted in the Navy in 2004 as a Hospital Corpsman. “We joke ‘Medics’ are an Army job because they are very specific specialties, but as corpsman, we cover ten different jobs.”
After some specialty schools he became a Field Medical Service Technician (NEC 8404) where he worked side by side with the Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. As he prepared to deploy with them a knee injury that required surgery sidelined him and he missed the deployment.
Joe however, later joined them on a deployment to Fallujah, Iraq, from February 2006 to January 2007 with Regimental Combat Team 5. “I volunteered to go out and on a flip of a coin I was chosen to be a part of an EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] security team,” Joe said. “I worked with a small contingent of Marines and drove around with the EOD guys to make sure nothing happened to them.”
When other units were outside the wire whether it was in town or on the road and came across something suspicious, they’d call Joe and his team. “We did 350 9-line missions and we were pretty busy during that time,” he remembered. “We would respond 24/7 day or night and that definitely kept things interesting and spicy.” Joe and his team would collect ordinance they picked up throughout the week and by the week’s end they’d blow it all up to dispose of it. Later in the deployment his team worked in some nearby towns with the closest base being Al Taqaddum Airbase (TQ), which was about a 45-minute convoy drive to and from.
During this time his medical expertise was utilized the most as he drove from one side of the Area of Operations (AO) along the main freeway to the other. As the teams’ corpsman, Joe treated Iraqis with lower limb injuries from blasts to gunshots. “It was interesting how the body can react to different calibers, but a lot of the work was the initial point of injury and wrapping them and getting them to a higher level of care [trauma surgeons].” Although his team of Marines were lucky since none of them received physical injuries, they were however, knocked unconscious from IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) explosions on several occasions. These concussive blasts would have life-long effects when they returned home.
Joe notably helped assist an Army convoy that was banged up. “I had four different injuries I was juggling, plus we had to drive back to base with them,” he said. “Patients had litters and we had armored humvees, which meant we had to carry them in interesting ways and I ended up riding on the hood of some humvees.” Joe also witnessed the aftermath of a brutal collision that squished an Iraqi between two dump trucks after a semi-truck swerved off the road. “Talk about some random shit happening when you’re driving down the road,” he said. “I was in combat, but we see it all.”
When Joe returned from Iraq, he started to struggle to remember things and realized he had symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Joe estimates he was the third patient ever to attend the surf therapy clinic at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD), which he began in 2008. “It was a cumulative effect, I was exposed to nine blasts that happened within 50 meters that I felt,” Joe spoke about his understanding of his injuries. “Some of them I was in vehicles that were lifted off the ground, some of them I would be standing within the vehicle and you definitely knew something went off right in front of you.”
After he retired in 2009, he became a mentor for other veterans going through the surf clinic program by teaching others how to surf. His experience was such a positive one that he even found love at NMCSD when he met his wife, Sarah-Rae, a clinical psychologist for the Navy.
Joe can do it all too, from bodysurfing and handplanes to riding surf mats and gliders. Surf mats are inflatable and Joe uses a pair of fins to propel himself while riding the mats on his stomach to catch a wave.
“I said in a radio program years ago (2008-2009) that surfing was the only time I felt normal,” Joe reflected about his experience on KPBS. “And I’ve learned that normal isn’t really the right word for what I was feeling, the better way to describe it is, surfing’s one of the few times I feel mindful.
“I’m in the moment and I’m in the water and I’m focused on what the waves are doing, the sights, the smells, the feelings you get with surfing. Not just particularly riding the waves, but just being out there. I know there have been days when my goal is to just go out and sit out in the back and hang out. Catching waves makes it all worthwhile because that’s where the real fun is."
customized surfboard & Equipment
Anything that team riders at One More Wave need, they receive. One More Wave has assisted Joe with body surfing equipment and wet suits that enable him to engage in the water. “They gave me a custom standup surfboard, an 8’0” fish and it’s a lot of fun to ride,” he said. “I think I’ve got four handplanes and three pairs of fins throughout the years.” Fins and handplanes are easy to lose in the surf so having them available is always a priority.
Joe’s customized surfboard has a basic design that ultimately gets the job done when he hits the surf. “My surfboard has blue acid wash bottom and it reminds me of when you’re underwater looking up at the sunlight and what it looks like in the swirls and different blues you get with that.”
The surf community is very welcoming to newcomers and many organizations like Waves of Impact(also works with Semper Fi Fund), AmpSurf, and others hold surf camps to teach surfing and build positive relationships. “I met a lot of those organizations from doing the surf clinic at the NMCSD, but what I liked about One More Wave is the fact that they were getting guys equipment,” Joe explained. “I met Alex randomly one time on the beach in Coronado in 2016 when the logo still had Poseidon on it. Then ran into him again when him and I were both randomly at the same store in Coronado and ended up talking more.”
Alex equipped Joe with cork handplanes that had laser-burned One More Wave decals on them. Joe has been a One More Wave team rider ever since and enjoys the social engagement of being within a welcoming surf community. “It makes it comfortable not to isolate and how to be in public because sometimes I don’t want to deal with people, so it gives me a good reason to get out of the house,” he said. “There’s something about surfing with your friends and that’s why I encourage so many people to do it.”
You can find Joe regularly attending One More Wave events that are typically held the third Saturday of every month in San Diego (events are also held in Santa Cruz and Oahu). Joe is an advocate for the Torrey Pine Surf Ministry, the church he and Sarah-Rae attend, because of the community they provide and the free equipment and wetsuits they offer every Saturday at La Jolla Shores. He also participates with fellow One More Wave team rider, G.P. Scheppler, on the Coastal Athlete Program Podcast. Here they feature “athlete interviews, special topic deep dives, and conversations about the coastal approach to health and wellness.” Follow him on Instagram @jojax_85.
Author: Matt fratus