Every day Nate Smith gets a throbbing, painful reminder of one of the worst days of his life: the day he was shot in the leg while serving in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.
All that washed away for Smith on Thursday, though, the moment he stepped foot into the cool North Beach waters and rode a wave along with dozens of other surfers.
"You're out there and it's a totally different world," said Smith, 39, of Twin Mountain. "All thought of what happened is just gone for that time you're out there."
Smith was one of 20 wounded veterans who got the chance to catch a wave Thursday as a part of American Legion Post 35's annual Hit the Beach, a surfing event coordinated with the Wounded Warrior Project.
donated the wetsuits and boards for the veterans -- some of which returned from Afghanistan two weeks ago while others were transported from Walter Red and Bethesda Naval hospitals -- and a slew of volunteers helped give instructions, carried riders out to the ocean, and cooked food Thursday.
Post 35 Cmdr. Ralph Fatello said all those individuals pitched in Thursday because they wanted to fulfill one goal: to provide the veterans with a chance to feel "normal" and do something they may not have imagined was possible.
Brent Cote, 53, of Nashua, was one of those skeptical individuals. He quickly realized, though, that he was capable of more than he thought, even though he’s paralyzed from the waist down.
Cote, a former member of the Air Force, gradually began losing feeling and motion in his legs about eight years ago when the radiation used to treat a tumor in his back began “destroying” blood vessels and robbing his spine of nutrients.
Cote said slowly losing the ability to walk and all feeling up to his waist was extremely difficult to deal with, although he said a lot of the frustration was pushed aside about four years ago once he began participating in Wounded Warrior activities like biking.
Thursday was the second time Cote has been surfing in his life, and he said the feeling of being in the water and riding a wave was “really a blast” not only because he never envisioned doing it, but because he got to share the experience with his daughter, Emily.
“I find the opportunity to bring her out is almost as great as the opportunity that I have,” said Cote. “To get together and to share that experience with the family is great. I really like that.”
Emily Cote, 17, also said she loves that opportunity -- not only because she said it shows her dad what he can still do, but because of the emotional change these kinds of activities have had on him.
“I think since he’s been doing this his mood’s been so much better and he’s just so much happier now that he’s got something,” she said. “He goes biking all the time, and he’s just this great guy. I’m so lucky to be connected with him.
“I’m glad now he’s accepting it and he’s going out and doing great things.”
Fatello said stories like Brent Cote’s are ones in which he really connects and are why he started the event four years ago, as he too found something therapeutic in the waves when he came home from Vietnam.
“I came back and surfing saved me,” said Fatello. “To share it with these guys, to share it with family and friends, you can’t trade that. It’s awesome.”