What’s better than a week spent wakeboarding in a spectacular location? A week spent wakeboarding in a spectacular location with veterans who have served their country and deserve to enjoy the trip of a lifetime. To give back to these brave young people, we at Bonnier and Nissan Trucks are providing them with fantasy trips. Our sister magazines have taken vets hunting, fishing and motorcycling all over the globe. Along with pros Steel Lafferty and Josh Palma and our own Ben Greenwood, Wakeboarding took veterans wakeboarding on the waters of Lake Powell, Utah.
What’s the scoop? Let’s begin with the two veterans we were privileged to host and the goals each set for himself.
Outside the Wire
By the time many soldiers have reached their early 20s, their life experience is a far cry from any Rockwellian notion of all-American. Returning from overseas is fraught with peril, and readjusting is no easy task. Just ask Joey Watanabe.
“I have trouble being around kids, even my own nieces and nephews,” stated 23-year-old Watanabe, trying not to choke up — and doing a better job at it than I did — while relating his experiences to us over a post-session steak dinner. “In–country (in the war zone), little kids are slapping IEDs on vehicles.”
As newshounds know, IED stands for “improvised explosive device,” and they bring death and injury to many U.S. service members.
Watanabe spent 270 days “outside the wire” in Afghanistan, meaning beyond the perimeter of a base camp. A combat medic, he had many young people die in his arms, and he placed even more in body bags. His knees suffered injury when he shouldered a downed soldier, and when a firefight broke out, he fell to his already-injured knees several times. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and tinnitus. Still, he was stoked about the experience at Lake Powell.
“Who gets to do this?” he asked, beaming with a smile brighter than the desert sun as he slid past the photo boat at the beginning of a run behind the MasterCraft X-Star.
Watanabe is a surfer and skater from SoCal, and now an entrepreneur whose company, One Actual, sells battle belts and holsters. He also works with the charity Labs for Liberty. At the lake, he was psyched and focused on one thing: learning a tantrum.
Darren Bland left the army as a sergeant in 2010, after serving his combat tour in Khost Province, Afghanistan. His unit’s mission was route clearance: locating and detonating IEDs. The main roles he played were rear gunner, lead gunner and Husky operator. A Husky is a specialized explosives-removal vehicle.
“While operating the Husky, I was responsible for multiple IED finds and one direct IED strike,” Bland said. “I did not receive a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in that blast, but I have been treated for PTSD and a shoulder injury related to that blast.”
From what I came to know about him, I’d deem the above understatement — regarding the experience of getting freaking blown up — to be characteristic of this tough, quiet 29-year-old from Missouri.
An enthusiastic wakeboarder, Bland said his family had a “ski boat ballasted for wakeboarding,” and he also used to ride with friends. But after his service, things changed.
“I just didn’t want to do anything or be around anybody when I got back,” he said with a shake of his head. His torpor lasted a few years. And it wasn’t the only reaction he experienced.
“Things would trigger me,” Bland said. “I had the biggest fight of my life with my dad when he was driving us somewhere. He was going a bit fast, weaving in and out. In-country, you drive slow. That’s safe. But I lost it and really started screaming at him.”
Bland is currently forward-deployed as a private contractor and in charge of force protection assets, guarding, in his own words, “some of America’s best and brightest.” He noted that he was super excited to be with our pros and to be getting back to doing things that he loves in such a big way. On the way to the marina in the pre-dawn hours of our first day on location, he confided, “I gotta get upside down.”
Getting to It
The launch ramp resembled an open-air mine shaft, what with its half-mile length, minimal width, and rock walls extending far above to a narrow ribbon of blue sky. The Nissan Titan Pro-4X and its torquey 390 hp engine never strained while hauling through the 7,000-foot passes en route to Powell, or while launching the 3-plus-ton MasterCraft, fueled up and on the trailer. The climate control inside the truck allowed our crews to scoff as much at the desert heat as they did at the snowfall we encountered in Flagstaff on the way in.
Finding glass was easy. This was weekday preseason wakeboarding, and we had our choice of canyons to shred. We were interrupted by a passing fishing boat maybe twice during our entire trip. Wetsuits were called for, but other than that, there were no no-wake zones, no complaints about the tunes, and no worries about anything except whether our veterans would achieve their goals.
We spent Day One in assessment. The vets would ride, take a break, get some counsel from our pros, and then ride some more. While Benny G. drove, Steel and Palma each took a set riding solo, and then took a doubles set with the vets to show the two intermediate wakeboarders by example what they needed to do to execute, move up a level, and succeed.
Bland said, “Just showing me that it is possible — to ride beside these guys — is the greatest help.”
The pros have a method to teaching. “There is a template,” Palma intoned thoughtfully over empanadas and crackling-cold margaritas at one of our group meals, “but it’s individualized based on the rider.”
Lafferty joined in: “There are a million minor adjustments — where you hold your hands, where you place your weight — that we can help a student make.”
This full-immersion training paid off. After some training, both vets were more aggressively hitting the wake, jumping higher, and landing smoother than when they had started.
Then it happened. Watanabe tried his first heelside invert (a tantrum). But, though he’d fully rotated, he didn’t land it.
After four more attempts, with intense coaching from all three pros in between, he still couldn’t stick it. No matter. The combat medic who found it hard to suffer the company of his own nieces was now smiling ear to ear, his entire being laser-focused on the accomplishment he’d just achieved and on being that much nearer to his ultimate goal of successfully throwing a tantrum.
Then it was Bland’s turn. He was chilly because we didn’t have a wetsuit that fit him — not ideal conditions for attempting your first back roll. Yet Bland hit the wake heelside and beautifully hard, nabbing great air and inverting with a tight rotation that just looked so right.
But he didn’t land it that day, either. Still, he was psyched, as was the entire crew on his behalf. We’d return the next day with renewed vigor, riding the success of today — and with a wetsuit that fit.
The Next Level
Joey Watanabe never did land his tantrum. Multiple attempts, intense coaching sessions with the best in the world, and the collective karma of our group willing his success just could not make it happen. But Watanabe’s spirit soared. “My wakeboarding is at an entirely new level,” he proclaimed, vowing to nail the tantrum and other moves in the coming months, after he moves his business from California to Utah. He’s one vet who’s not just on the mend; he’s on the right track.
And Darren Bland? He nailed his back roll with a whoop that echoed the length of Gunsight Canyon, seeming to shake the rock to its very foundation. The crews aboard both the MasterCraft and the photo boat were just as elated. While Bland’s reaction was what one would expect, it was his aura, his presence, that really told the tale of what he’d accomplished. Just as the desert sun seemed to glow from within the rock of the mesas and canyons of Lake Powell, pulling off that back roll threw a switch inside Darren Bland. He seemed to glow from within with the light of the sun.
Foundation for Exceptional Warriors
Bonnier and Nissan worked with the Foundation for Exceptional Warriors to find the veterans we hosted. The FEW is an adventure-based outreach program that strives to inspire change in warriors’ perceptions, decrease their feelings of helplessness, and get away from the idea that they are alone.
Nissan Titan XD PRO-4X
The PRO-4X proved awesome while towing the burly MasterCraft through 7,000-foot passes and the rugged desert. It’s also available in a diesel version sporting 550 lb.-ft. of torque. It includes Trailer Sway Control, a load-distributing hitch, Hill Descent Control, an electronic locking rear differential, and other features that make it a superhauler.
|5.6 l V8
|18″ diameter, 7.5″ width
|228-243″ length, 80-81″ width, 77-79″ height
|Three-year, 36,000-mile basic; five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain
|Max Towing Capacity (4X4)
|11,000 lb. hitch, 10,850 lb. gooseneck
|17,770 lb. hitch, 17,700 lb. gooseneck