Healing wounds on the waves

WORDS: Michael Jacobson PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied

Congratulations to Matthew Hoare, Southern Cross University’s 2022 Alumnus of the Year. An exercise physiologist, ex-soldier and co-founder of the Association of Veteran Surfers, Matthew is using surfing and ocean therapy to help fellow veterans make the transition from military to civilian life and enjoy better mental and physical health.

In the aftermath of war, former soldier Matthew Hoare is helping comrades find peace. Out in the ocean, Australian defence force veterans are riding the waves towards better mental and physical health – and a more certain future.

For his commitment to the rehabilitation of the veteran community through ocean therapy, Matthew is Southern Cross University’s 2022 Alumnus of the Year.

Matthew graduated with a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science and a Master of Exercise Physiology in 2017. Today, as co-founder of the Association of Veteran Surfers (AVS) on the Gold Coast, he applies clinical knowledge and personal experience to help fellow veterans as they transition to life at home.

“When military life ends, many veterans feel as though they lose their identity from when they served,” says Matthew. “Too often this can have dire results.

“We are all aware of the high incidence of mental health issues and suicide among veterans. That is where AVS strives to be a point of understanding, collaboration, enjoyment and, hopefully, progress. It unites veterans with others who have been through similar experiences. That empathy is extremely important.”

Time was when surfing helped Matthew’s own transition back to civilian life. He joined the Army at age 19 and served almost five years with the 8/9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He was deployed to what was then East Timor – now Timor-Leste – in 2010 and Afghanistan in 2012.

Once out of uniform, he found surfing an ideal way to clear his head, find calm, think positively and commune with nature.

“A mate and I were deployed to Afghanistan and we had a shared bond through surfing,” recalls Matthew. “We found that when we came back, surfing was the one thing we could go to, out in the ocean, just to get away from all the background noise. To just relax. We also thought we could help other veterans in similar situations, through surfing and ocean therapy.”

AVS launched in late 2015 with just a few members gathering for a monthly surf at Kirra. Since then, membership has grown so rapidly that AVS now has five branches operating from the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast down to Northern NSW and Sydney. Local surf clubs and RSL branches provide invaluable support.

“My dad taught me to surf down at Palm Beach when I was five and I have found respite and rejuvenation on the waves ever since,” says Matthew. “Being in nature is so positive. For a surfer, there is nothing to worry about but the next set, the next wave. Surfing is all about being present in the now, not what has gone before, so it encourages focus and builds anticipation.

“Yet while surfing is deeply rewarding as an individual, surfers also have a strong camaraderie. Many veterans can relate to that. Out there with a few mates, it is therapeutic. It alleviates stresses and troubles and can bring a sense of renewal that is affirming.”

Matthew recalls the example of a good mate who telephoned him to say goodbye.

“He was in a bad spot and planned to end his life. But I was able to get him down to the water with other veterans and that social connection saved his life. Surfing with someone for the first time, or after a long time, you definitely see that joy you get from surfing.”

Education has also played a key role in Matthew’s post-military life, bringing him to Southern Cross University in 2016. His degree translates well to his day job supporting private clients and people with disabilities – again including veterans – with their rehabilitation and exercise prescription.

“Exercise physiology was a natural choice for me,” he says. “I had always played sport and could see how exercise physiology was a way to use exercise to help people. I had some injuries after my service years and I wanted to assist people, especially veterans. That passion has continued to drive me and a lot of that is informed by my experience at Southern Cross University.

“Because I was a veteran and had been away from education for so long, I felt I needed to be in an environment that enabled a closer connection to my lecturers and my fellow students. Southern Cross University was ideal.

“And now, through surfing, I am sharing my passion and my qualifications with other veterans as a way to connect and to help them move forward with hope and healing.”

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