Pyramid Rock Beach, Hawaii — When former Marine Corps Capt. Ben Mercier returned from his deployment in Iraq after being wounded, he said he just didn’t want to be around people. “I was just different. I didn’t know at the time that I had [PTSD] and I was drinking more than I should have,” says 39-year-old Mercier.
He always wanted to join the military. Growing up at the Lemoore Naval Air Station in California, he admired his best friend’s father who was a Marine pilot. After attending ROTC and graduating from college, he joined the Marine Corps in 1999. He went on to become a logistics officer with the 3rd Marine Regiment and served honorably.
During his last deployment in Iraq, he suffered multiple injuries. “I had injuries in my back, knees, ankles and traumatic brain injury. I wanted to stay in the Marines and I fought my way until they said ‘no you’re done.’ I loved it and I wanted to continue it but I couldn’t so two months after I got out of the Marines,” says Mercier who was medically retired in 2009.
Upon his retirement, life was not easy for Mercier. “I started to have nightmares. I didn’t trust people. I was drinking more. I was just angry, real angry and losing my mind,” says Mercier. He sought mental help through the local VA hospital and started treatment for what would be diagnosed as PTSD. “I was in medications for three years and then they finally said what I had. I’ve been through about eight years of therapy. I don’t go anymore because it doesn’t help me anymore. I know what I have and I have to deal with that myself,” says Mercier.
Mercier has been bodysurfing and spending more time outdoors to cope with PTSD. He always loved water sports and bodysurfing was his introduction to the ocean when he was very young. He swam the 200-meter butterfly at the University of Hawai’i from 1992 to 1997 and went on to rank 21st in the world in NCAA Championships in 1994. ”I love bodysurfing, being in the ocean. It is just natural and you get an awesome workout,” says Mercier.
Bodysurfing has played a big role in Mercier’s recuperation and transition out of the military. After his retirement, his transition was rough, he says. He turned to bodysurfing as the one thing he knew would give him satisfaction. “It helps me physically with my injuries and mentally with my PTSD. It is like being free in the water,” he says.
During one of those days at the beach, he met another retired captain. “We observed a bodysurfer in the lineup (area where bodysurfers go to catch a wave) and we said, ‘oh there’s a Marine guy out there. Let’s go talk to him. He’s ripping it out there,” says Al Balderama who spent 23 years in the Air Force and is currently the Battalion Chief in the Federal Fire Department at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Balderama formed the Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association club in 2002 after a bodysurfing championship in the big island of Hawaii. He’s currently the club’s president.
Like Mercier, Balderama grew up bodysurfing and is passionate about the sport. Kahanalu or bodysurfing, says Balderama, is the purest form of riding a wave. He spent 15 years outside of Hawaii while serving at the Air Force and when he returned in the early 90′s to Hawaii, returned to bodysurfing.
The creation of the Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association served as a way to keep the art and bodysurfing sport alive and it has around 200 members. Mercier is one of those who joined the club. ”He was still active duty and he was very positive about the sport and he was one of the guys who made an impact in the club,” says Balderama.
Looking to give back to the community, Mercier partnered with Balderama to launch the Pyramid Rock Bodysurfing Championship to raise funds and awareness for the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment.
“I wanted to give back and give what I could to help out,” says Mercier. For eight years, Mercier has continued to host this event to raise awareness about the work the Wounded Warriors Detachment Hawaii does for soldiers and their families. “I still want to be in touch with the military and I love doing this contest and I would love to do more in the future,” says Mercier.
During the first contest in 2006, there were around 143 people. “He had this fire under him and he kept going with his idea and that vision to launch the contest,” says Balderama. Mercier coordinated with the Hawaii State Bodysurfing Association and the Marine Corp Base Hawaii Aquatics Department and the Marine Corps Community Services to host the event at Pyramid Rock Beach which is located inside the Marine Corps Base Hawaii. They just hosted the 8th Annual Bodysurfing Championship on January 18 at Pyramid Rock which is they say is the best spot in Oahu because it has better quality waves for bodysurfers.
“This event is one of my favorite events because the Marines Corps is involved, Marine Corps Community Services is involved and they make this event here at Pyramid Rock like a professional event,” says Balderama. Both military and the general public got a chance to ride a good wave during this event.
Mercier nowadays says he feels better though he doesn’t bodysurf as much. ”I’m getting better but still not all the way up there yet but just being out of the water and getting away from things helps me clear my mind. I’m just glad the contest is still going on and that we’re helping the wounded warriors,” says Mercier. The next bodysurfing competition is planned for January 2015.
After the Marines, Mercier became interested in filmmaking and used the Post 9/11 GI Bill to go to college and completed a Masters in Fine Arts and Digital Cinema last April and launched his company, Mercier Films. He’s currently working on a documentary titled “The Black Shorts” and has produced numerous surf genre videos. He continues his filmmaker experience by helping on other film projects.
Second Tour is an ABC News digital series profiling the lives of military veterans who are doing unique things in the civilian world. For more stories, click here.
ABC News video editor Arthur Niemynski contributed to this report.