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Surfing helped these Vietnam vets deal with the war and its aftermath

Vietnam veterans James Lischer, left, and Bobby Lux get ready to surf at Del Mar. Since the 1960's, surfing has helped them open up about their experience in Vietnam. Katie Schoolov/KPBS

Like a lot of American soldiers in Vietnam, Bobbie Lux spent most of his time in the jungle. As an infantryman, he rarely knew exactly where he was fighting.

But one day, about halfway through his tour, his commander told him to set down his rifle for a day of R&R. And for Lux, who grew up surfing in Encinitas, Cal., it's the one day he likes to remember from an experience he’s often tried to forget.

"They took us to the beach in helicopters," Lux recalled. "I was pretty excited. I got out there and the surf was mushy, you know, two foot, but they had a stack of boards there. It felt so good."

He thinks he was at what the Americans called "China Beach," the most famous surf spot of the Vietnam War. China Beach was actually My Khe beach in the city of Da Nang. It was a rest and relaxation station, next to a large military hospital.

"I know I got to stand up and ride two, three waves," Lux said. "I had a few buddies that were from the Midwest, and they wanted me to help them try to surf it. It was beautiful and relaxing."

Lux was at the beach for less than three hours before his unit was sent back to the jungle. He would not surf again until he got back to California. He said he does not talk often about his time in Vietnam.

"War is not good for anybody .... You can survive it, but that's all you can do," he said. "And surfing has helped me survive it."

Troops actually surfed all along Vietnam’s coast. Often, they were isolated surfers who found boards or built their own out of spare parts. Many of them were Californians drafted into the conflict. They were hungry for any taste of life back home.

Lux, 70, is still surfing. Recently, he was out at Del Mar, Cal. with Jim Lischer. A retired lifeguard and lifelong surfer, Lischer does not recall even seeing the ocean when he served in Vietnam. But just after his tour of duty there, he hit the beach in Hawaii, along with two friends who also had just gotten off the plane from Vietnam. They were walking to the beach when a car backfired.

"We all went under a car … instantly went for cover," Lischer said. "That was right downtown, a block from the beach at Waikiki."

Lischer said he used the massive Hawaiian waves to wash away the stress of living in a combat zone.

"I took the personal challenge to see how large of a wave I could ride." he said. "That took my mind off the war zone instantly."

Over the past two years, the California Surf Museum in Oceanside has been collecting the stories of vets who surfed in Vietnam and those who continue to use surfing as a release. The exhibit "China Beach: Surfers, the Vietnam War, and the Healing Power of Wave-riding" opened in May.

Surfing is part of the mystique of the Vietnam War. It was featured in "Apocalypse Now" and later the acclaimed but short-lived 1980's TV show "China Beach ." But those references are lost on veterans like Lischer.

"I only learned recently through the California Surf Museum that there was a China Beach at all," Lischer said. "That's partially because I avoided going to any Vietnam movies for decades and decades."

The exhibit has been a chance for vets to open up about the wider experience of a war that many of them barely talked about after they came home.

The day he was surfing with Lux at Del Mar, Lischer ran into one of his former co-workers, Eric Sandy. He found out Sandy had been at China Beach during one of his two tours in the Navy.

The two of them met in 1972 back in California. They worked together for 40 years, but they did not talk very much about their experience in Vietnam.

"Nobody wanted to know about my experience," Sandy said. "When we came back we weren't very well accepted. It's not like we were treated as heroes."

The exhibit at the California Surf Museum includes a recreation of the surf shack at China Beach. Artifacts from the time include a surfboard fashioned from the parts used to repair swift boats.

Bruce Blandy was in the Navy in 1969, stationed near the border with North Vietnam. He fashioned his own surfboards from supplies used to repair river craft. He also helped put together the California Surf Museum's exhibit.

"A lot of Vietnam veterans, especially when we came back, we feel a little under appreciated," Blandy said. "So this is part of the history of Vietnam."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.