Kyle Wilhelm

Matt Fratus

Before the Army, Kyle grew up in the suburbs in the Ventura area of California, where he enjoyed riding motorcycles and shooting guns during the holidays on his family’s farm in Lancaster. With some college under his belt and work experience at a hot rod shop building custom cars, he had the thought in the back of his mind whether he’d regret his decision later in life if he hadn’t joined the military. As one that views himself as a patriotic person and with the inspiration of his uncle who was an Army infantryman, he decided to follow in his footsteps. 

Kyle enlisted in the US Army in 2010 and served in Alaska with 1-24 Infantry Battalion, 25th Infantry Division where he deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012. “We flew in on helicopters and got dropped off at a little base in the middle of nowhere, which was right along the main highway [Highway 1], the only paved road in Afghanistan,” he said. “As soon as we got there and into next week they started shooting rockets and mortars into our base. That’s when things started to feel real.”

For a month straight of being attacked and defending themselves at FOB Bullard in Zabul Province, Shah Joy district, Kyle’s team built a reinforced base in the night at the location from where they were being fired upon. Their goal was to prevent further attacks. “Our main mission was to keep the area peaceful, get the children back in school, which we did while we were there,” Kyle reflected. “They got to go to school for a year, but when we left, the place got overrun and the Taliban moved back in and the kids couldn’t go to school anymore.” 

They patrolled the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan at 6,000 feet of elevation. “On our first patrols everyone was sucking because of the thin air, we weren’t used to hiking around in that kind of altitude,” he said. “In the winter and because we were up so high, the temperature dropped to twenty below. We left all of our extreme cold weather gear back in Alaska, so the winters were very cold for us.”

As Murphy’s Law dictates, the heaters stopped working during the winter and the air conditioners in the summer. “You can train all you want, but nothing is going to prepare you for the exact situation you’re going to be in. But when we weren’t getting shot at, the fun part was building up the base to make it feel a little like home.” When they first arrived they were sleeping on the ground, but overtime Kyle and his teammates added cots to sleep on, a fire pit in the middle of each of the four bunkers at the corners of the base, a makeshift sauna they built out of a shack in the center, and even had blow dart guns that they shot at each other during down time. 

Kyle returned from Afghanistan in 2012 and began a recovery process for the next two years where he went to medical appointments for his physical injuries. “My back is pretty much toast and so is one of my knees from carrying all the weight around the desert for a year,” he said. “I tried to be the tough guy who always volunteered to carry the most weight. ‘Here I am the littlest guy carrying the biggest bag’, but at some point your body tells you that you can’t do that anymore, so I was fortunate to have it not be worse than it is, but I am pretty much able to go throughout my day without stuff bothering me too much.”

In addition to his physical injuries, he also went to therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), anxiety, sleeping, and temper issues. “They did their best to help me out and I took all kinds of medication and by the time I got out I just wanted nothing to do with the medication or anything anymore,” Kyle said. Being in the deserts of Afghanistan and in the bitter cold of Alaska, there wasn’t time to go surfing. Now back home, Kyle has the opportunity to achieve surf therapy. “I went back to the ocean where I like to be, whether it’s diving, sailing, fishing, surfing, if it’s to do with the water it makes me happy.” 

Surf Therapy

“The biggest things I have an issue with: I have a really short fuse nowadays, I get very impatient very quickly, and have trouble sleeping,” Kyle said. “I found other ways to help with sleeping like putting myself in a routine, like reading to fall asleep. For anxiety I try to go and take a ride on my motorcycle or I go to the beach and surf.” 

“If I’m in a bad mood my wife Melanie tells me, ‘Hey you need to get out of here and go to the beach and go surfing because you’re out of control,’” he laughed. “Surfing has kept me from feeling like I need to go back to some kind of medication because I really don’t like the way that they make me feel.”

As an experienced surfer, Kyle jokes that he isn’t the most talented, but being out on the water is what helps the most in his path to surf therapy. “I’m happy just laying there on the board and floating around, looking down and watching the fish go by, I just like being away from all the distractions on land,” he said. “You can’t have your phone out there, no one is bothering you, you’re just out there at the mercy of the ocean. That’s what calms me down, the lack of control is peaceful for me.” 

Customized Surfboard & Art Therapy

After what Kyle described as a life changing experience at Operation Surf in 2018, Kyle knew he wanted to be more intertwined with the surf community. “It was good to be surrounded by people that had been through the same stuff in combat and could actually relate to me,” he reflected. “We all share a common love of surfing and the ocean.” 

One More Wave’s mission is to provide wounded and disabled veterans with customized surfing equipment and community. Through One More Wave, Kyle customized a longboard and has the shark deterrent pattern on the bottom. “In our cold waters over here we have a lot of sharks. They have never bothered me, but I figured every little step to prevent one from coming to say ‘hi’ is probably a good thing,” he laughed. “On the top I wanted the whole thing to be black and then have a flag on it to represent America, the service, and my buddies.” 

“Then I put a CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), which you earn when you get shot at and return fire at the enemy. So I put one of those on the bottom and the middle is a Grim Reaper and some tombstones as a shout out to some of my buddies who got killed. I have the Bible verse:  ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’”

One More Wave customized the board so it could turn like the shortboards that Kyle grew up riding. “I’m stoked on how it turned out, it looks sick,” he exclaimed. “I hadn’t ever really ridden a longboard longer than eight feet [9”3’], but I knew I wanted something that was super floaty, I could nose ride if I wanted to, but they made sure that the thing could turn for me because I grew up on shortboards and I kind of got frustrated with not being able to ride shortboards most of the time.”

When Kyle is not surfing he works as one of the mechanical designers for a corporation that builds testing equipment for wind tunnels. He also enjoys riding his motorcycle, riding his skateboard, and spending time with his wife Melanie. Follow Kyle on Instagram: @4kyle86