If Sergeant Carter Hess hadn’t been in Afghanistan on June 29, 2012, he probably would have been surfing. A handsome and chipper 21-year-old Army paratrooper on his second tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, Hess grew up riding hurricane swells off Panama City Beach with his friends. In a southern drawl, he told me how exciting and fun those days were: “When the group text message starts going about, like, where we’re meeting up and when, everybody gets so pumped.”
Hess was leading an infantry patrol through the dry, rocky Arghandab River Valley in 2012, and anything having to do with surfing seemed like a distant dream. He had done his first tour at 18 and was fourth-generation military, the son of a former Florida state attorney named Glenn Hess. His unit had been training the Afghan police, helping them operate more effectively and, as he puts it, “kind of playing big brother.” Having served on the front lines of the troop surge in Kandahar Province, a mammoth Obama-era effort to push Taliban troops out of southern Afghanistan, Hess had seen how dangerous the entire operation really was. “Our battalion had a lot of amputees that year,” he says.
Now he was inching along steadily, moving in a straight line behind a soldier who was searching the path for bombs with ground-penetrating radar. But the system isn’t perfect, the minesweeper missed one, and Hess’s left foot came down on a pressure plate buried beneath the sand. The explosion threw him to the ground and changed his life forever.
Hess came home wondering if he’d ever run again, let alone stand on a surfboard. The blast had blown off his foot and lower leg—everything below the top of his boot. After receiving emergency treatment in Kandahar, he was transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Doctors had to remove more of his right leg—six inches below the knee—to save the rest.
Hess tried to retain his natural optimism, but the loss devastated him. It wasn’t just the amputation; it was the knowledge that his fellow soldiers had to keep going without one of their own. “That can affect a platoon in many ways,” he says. “It affects the morale of the team, it affects mission-readiness.”
After six months of rehab at Walter Reed—which involved spending a lot of time getting used to moving around on a prosthetic leg—Hess went home to Florida, where his family threw him a welcome-home party on the beach. Beside a row of American flags, they’d written “CARTER HESS OUR HERO” in the sand. Hess appreciated the gesture, but looking at the ocean was painful, since his surfing life felt like a distant memory. “I got really depressed and overweight,” he says of the period that followed. But he eventually decided to rededicate himself to recovery.
At Walter Reed, Hess had been fitted out with a standard artificial leg, featuring a pylon, foot, and socket. One day in 2014, he grabbed his surfboard and headed to St. Andrews State Park to see if he could get up on a wave. As he paddled out, the water swelling and receding under him, he felt his instincts take over, just as they had the last time he’d surfed before the war. But as he popped up to ride an incoming wave, the leg was stripped from his body. “The whole thing came off,” he recalls. “It was pretty bad.” The prosthetic eventually washed up onshore, but Hess went home and gave up. “I became a shut-in,” he says.
Eventually, he realized that surfing might still be possible if he had a more durable leg. He contacted Walter Reed, whose prosthetics team offered to work with him on one that would better suit his needs. Tricking it out became a creative collaboration that also involved Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics, a designer and manufacturer of artificial limbs based in Maryland. Aaron McDonald, a 30-year-old lead technician with the company, bonded with Hess over the unique challenge. “He’s an aggressive surfer,” McDonald says, “so we had to put our heads together” to do the job right.
McDonald had fulfilled unusual requests before, but this was his first surf leg, and the first such leg he’d ever heard of. His team studied old videos of Hess riding waves, noting the angles of his legs and the amount of torque he used to push himself up when he stood. McDonald created a wider foot for greater stability, but then cut it down a bit to allow for more flexibility and ease of motion. In the end, the foot on the new leg was two sizes smaller than Hess’s real foot, an eight instead of a ten.
The finished product was made of titanium and carbon fiber, weighed under four pounds, and would cost around $9,000 if it weren’t covered by insurance. To Hess, the object couldn’t have been more precious, especially since it worked the first time he tried it. Returning to the beach, he paddled out, pushed himself up, and felt his feet find their balance. The wave swelled and carried him higher, but he didn’t buckle or fall this time. He rode the wave all the way to shore, smiling. “I was pretty excited,” he recalls with a laugh.
Hess started hitting the beach regularly to get back in shape. “It really gave me something that I had drive for, which I needed in my life at that time,” he says. He had one leg he used for walking, and one for surfing. When he’d wear the walking leg out, he’d send it up to Walter Reed, where they would convert it into a surfing leg, drilling new holes and using carbon-fiber plates to keep it light. “We’ve probably made four different legs, adapting the foot or the way the socket is made, to come up with where we’re at now,” Hess says. McDonald introduced another innovation, gluing treads from Hess’s surfing booties to the bottom of the artificial foot so it wouldn’t slip.
Hess got so proficient with the surf leg that he began working with Wounded Warriors to teach other vets the sport. In March 2020, he traveled to La Jolla, California, to ride in the AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championship. He returned to Panama City rejuvenated, and when his buddies recruited him to go surfing early the next morning, he assembled his surfing leg and headed for the beach.
That day, after an hour on the water, Hess decided his leg wasn’t right. He swam back to the boat, checked everything, and wrapped tape around it for reinforcement. Dropping back in, he paddled ahead of an approaching wave, feeling the water swell as the wave curled and lifted him. But when the wave broke, he got “clipped by the lip,” he says—hit by the top part of the wave—and the leg was knocked away from his body.
Legless and bobbing, Hess barely had time to register the loss before he was hit by another wave, then another, then another. Grabbing his board, he hoisted himself onto it and bodyboarded to shore, where his buddy Moe was waiting. “Dude!” Hess shouted. He struggled to prop himself up on his knees against the crashing waves. “You gotta come help me!” Moe ambled over, busting Hess’s chops as he assisted him in getting to the beach.
As the waves rolled to shore, the leg didn’t wash up. Hess and his friends looked for it over the next few days, but didn’t see it. Then a swell hit the area, turning the water murky and black. The leg was gone.