Steve joined the military prior to 9/11, born to missionary parents in Panama and raised between San Diego and Los Angeles surfing the coast. After graduating from UC Riverside he commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines in 1996. During his first deployment while conducting training operations in Darwin, Australia, in 2001, attached to the 15th MEU as a UH1N pilot with Helicopter Marine Light Attack Squadron (HMLA)-169 — they received the news of what was unfolding back home. Steve told the Communities Digital News, “It was a very anxious and excitable kind of feeling that we were out in the Arabian Sea and the country had been attacked and more than likely we were going to do something about it.”
As a part of the first wave that flew into Camp Rhino to establish a base and assist in taking down the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, he was doing what he loved to do. In the winter of 2003, he deployed a second time, but this time to Kuwait and Iraq with his squadron in support of the march of Baghdad. A little less than a year later on his third and final combat deployment is when his path diverted after being wounded in action.
“It was August 4th, the police station and Iraqi government came under attack by Al-Sadr forces from the cemetery, but we couldn’t attack,” he told One More Wave. Steve and his unit couldn’t fly over the mosque nearby or attack the holy burial grounds. “After returning to base and receiving another call the next morning after breakfast, myself and my Cobra wingman checked in with forward air controller call sign Wombat. There was a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) sent to reinforce the police station and American forces were being attacked.”
“The 11th MEU pushed enemy forces into the cemetery and my section ran attacks. On one of them we were directed toward a mortar position in range of the police station and opened up with the mini gun.” A barrage of fire from the ground ripped through his helicopter hitting the #1 engine and one round hit him in the head. “It went behind the bridge of my nose, through my right orbit, out the temple. I flinched a little bit, I brought the aircraft extremely nose high, and bled all over myself.”
Co-pilot Andrew Turner crash landed the damaged helicopter into a parking lot or courtyard at the cemetery’s edge. They landed right-side up, which saved their lives, rather than upside-down, which would have killed them. “I fell out of the bird and my crew chief Pat Burgess grabbed and dragged me behind a wall before the ground force secured our site.”
Steve was evacuated out of the city, flown to Baghdad for surgery, and began his road for recovery.
“I paused surfing when flying but when I moved back to California for an assignment I picked it up again. The name on the top of my board: Major David “Worm” Yaggy was Killed in Training (KIT),” he said. “I visited his wife and daughter Lizzie in 2010, his boards were in his attic, and it was an honor for me to ride his boards.”
Steve describes that any day that starts out on the water is a good day. “The camaraderie while talking with the other guys in the lineup; the adrenaline coming down face, good bottom turn into the shoulder, all of it is relaxing for me.” Being out on the waves helps clear the mind and relieves stress for our riders and many share similar experiences. “The ocean is big and powerful and if you don’t respect it, it can hurt you. I know my limitations and when the waves go over head-high I don’t go. But it’s all very soothing.”
“When we thought about this board it’s kind of about legacy for me and my heritage as an H1 pilot, all the names on the top are former squadron mates of mine that were killed. They were with me in OIF-1 and are no longer with us. Every time I am out on the water with this board I will be thinking about my fellow pilots, enjoying the times that we had and the deployments that we had together back in the ‘03-’04 timeframe.”
“On the nose is the squadron logo, all aircraft insignia painted on the tail of the birds. The bottom of the board is my career timeline with squadron logos of mine.”
Steve’s final assignment before retiring in 2018 after 22 years of service was as the Commanding Officer of Wounded Warrior Battalion-West where he described the opportunity as, “a perfect fit for a wounded warrior to mentor and inspire our current wounded, ill, or injured while recovering and transitioning to post-military life.”
Read more about our team riders here and follow Steve on his journey to surf therapy on his Instagram: @169huey4ever
Author: matt fratus