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Triple Amputee Focuses on What He's Gained, and Helps Injured Soldiers

Cameron Clapp uses his experiences as a triple amputee to help injured soldiers learning to surf

By Stephanie Elam
|  Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012  |  Updated 10:03 AM PDT
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"That thing hit me, tossed my body around, got my arm, cut my legs off first, got my arm second, and I don't really remember actually being hit by the train," said Cameron Clapp. He talked about his experiences as a triple amputee. Stephanie Elam reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

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In the wake of 9/11, 15-year-old Cameron Clapp suffered his own devastation.

"I was drunk and didn’t see -- I didn’t hear the train that was right there on the tracks. Boom!" recalls Clapp, now 26.

"That thing hit me, tossed my body around, got my arm, cut my legs off first, got my arm second, and I don't really remember actually being hit by the train," he said.

Despite losing three of his limbs on what he now calls his "alive day," Clapp says he doesn’t regret what he lost.

Instead, he chooses to focus on what he’s since gained.

"I don’t have any remorse or regret for the event that took my legs and my arm, because I know I wouldn’t be who I am today," Clapp said. "I was definitely a rebel, you know, a hooligan. I was drinking all the time. My behavior was self-destructive."

But after the accident, Clapp began working toward his goals. He knew he wanted to walk again and be independent.

During his rehabilitation, he found purpose by being a mentor to other amputees. Now 11 years since his accident, Clapp travels the country connecting with youth and other amputees, encouraging them to "live their lives to the fullest."

And now he's using his experiences to support injured soldiers who are rehabilitating by learning to surf on the California coast near San Luis Obispo through a nonprofit called Operation Surf.

Van Curaza, a surfer for nearly 40 years, has been teaching people to surf for 29 years. He is the president and program director of Amazing Surf Adventures, which runs Operation Surf.

"Our goal with Operation Surf is to help individuals overcome their perceived challenges through the sport of surfing," Curaza said as he eyed the water off Avila Beach. "Hopefully, re-instill hope and change some more lives, one wave at a time."

Operation Surf primarily works with active-duty wounded soldiers who are dealing with a myriad of health issues – from traumatic physical injuries to post traumatic stress disorder. Curaza, who has known Clapp for about five years, says the enthusiastic, outgoing amputee is an asset to Operation Surf.

"He goes to the double amputees and says, 'Okay, we have a no wheelchair policy, okay? Get off these things, get on your legs and start walking,'" recounted Curaza.

Equipped with special surfing feet made for him by Hangar Clinic, Clapp inspires the soldiers by showing them what he can do in the ocean.

"Getting out in the water and surfing waves with these guys shows them that there’s so much more you can do despite losing a leg or an arm," Clapp said.

With each new group of soldiers that participate in Operation Surf, Curaza sees how the ocean heals.

"We’ve had gentlemen come in here where they wear their hats really low, barely give you eye contact," Curaza said. "At the end of the week, their hats are off. They’re all, ‘I love you guys! I don’t want to go home! This is the best week of my life!'"

While Clapp and Curaza work to encourage some of America’s soldiers, they also inspire each other to do more. And for Clapp, there’s the chance to do something he never thought he’d do again.

"Having the opportunity to get back in the water," Clapp said after emerging from the surf. "There’s nothing like it."

Operation Surf, which also holds an event in Santa Cruz, is beginning its seventh year on the Central Coast.

The next Operation Surf event with soldiers will take place Sept. 25 through Oct. 2 in and around Avila Beach. Curaza hopes to bring the event to the Los Angeles and San Diego areas soon.

The organization needs donations and volunteers. If you wish to connect, head to www.OperationSurf.com.

NOTE: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Clapp's role with Operation Surf. The story has been updated.

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