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Wounded Warriors Deploy in Surf
Sherryl L. Parks | Kalamath Drive

 

 
Marine Joshua Hotaling with unidentified volunteer.
Photo Sherryl Parks

 

For four years our Del Mar Lifeguards have been hosting hundreds of wounded warriors at their “Surfing and Kayaking” program which takes place every Thursday morning from 8:00 am – 1:00 pm. Dramatically disabled active military (double and triple amputees) are brought to Del Mar from the Navy Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) as part of their Wellness Program initiated by medical staff and physical therapists.

At first, the military did not believe it would be possible to tend to extremely wounded troops in the surf, since double amputees would have to contend with the shifting sands and would require a beach chair to deliver them to their surfboards. However the undaunted Betty Michalewics-Kragh, an exercise physiologist at NMCSD, teamed up with Mark Rathsam, Del Mar’s Deputy Director of Community Services to train the lifeguards, therapists, and volunteers to use the chairs to deliver the troops to the water. Del Mar loaned all the gear, including wetsuits, surfboards, and beach chairs, helping the therapy team determine what they would eventually need to keep the program running. Betty reports that the lifeguards’ response to their every request was “yes we can do it.”

 

 
Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Rodriguez. Dec 15, 2011. U.S. Navy photo
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry

 

 

 
Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Rodriguez. Dec 15, 2011. U.S. Navy photo
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry

 

After attending a swim program at the hospital to develop the muscles that were damaged in the war or weakened through multiple surgeries, wounded warriors who have signed up for the surf clinic are transported from Balboa Hospital to our beach at 20th Street, where they are welcomed by our lifeguards and their red tent. Hanging from the tent are wetsuits, surrounded by various surfboards and beach chairs, and freshly baked donuts and coffee are provided each week by anonymous residents. In this casual, yet exhilarating environment, troops warm to the idea of surfing, to feel their bodies working again, and to enjoy the freedom of movement that had been lost with their severe injuries.

The sense of community and social life is tangible. Families are encouraged to attend, and returning veterans come to chat and share their own stories of moving on with life after military service. Wearing wetsuits themselves, these vets are eager to help our warriors give surfing a try. The program even has a mascot, of sorts. Cindy Maurer, a regular volunteer whose husband is deployed, brings her rescued lab-retriever mix, Ali, to play with visiting children.

Therapists are always present to facilitate the troops, volunteers come to show appreciation and support, and the ever-watchful lifeguards keep everyone safe. The clinic, says Betty, could not happen without the quiet support of our guards who are professional in every way.

Surfing and swimming works the whole person
While in the water the troops work every limb as well as develop strong core muscles. Unlike the gym, where weights or treadmills isolate one or two muscle groups, the surf engages the respiratory system, core muscles and strengthens their remaining limbs. The cold ocean water, waves, and shifting sand tests them and provides them the opportunity to do something different, to explore life, and stretch and grow emotionally.

 

 
Betty Michalewics-Kragh, an exercise physiologist, with Marine Michael Spivey. Photo Sherryl Parks

 

We interrupted the surf session of Marine Michael Spivey, age 31, for a brief interview – because he was so eager to get back in the water. After losing his left hand in Afghanistan in 2010, and several subsequent surgeries, the chance to swim and surf in the sunshine was thrilling for him.

Spiritual renewal is evident as well. Young men and women, with so many years ahead of them, find the water healing. Betty reports that once troops find themselves out beyond the breakers, looking back from the ocean to the shore, the perspective helps them to see that their injuries are a small part of the life that is ahead of them. There is still much that they can do and experience.

Resilience is the ability to spring back into shape after being bent, stretched or deformed. Thanks to our Del Mar Lifeguards and generous residents, as well as the vision of the military, some lucky wounded warriors are given an opportunity here in Del Mar.

 

 
Marine Cpl. Daniel J. Franke. Dec 15, 2011 U.S. Navy photo
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry

 

 
Marine Cpl. Daniel J. Franke. Dec 15, 2011 U.S. Navy photo
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry

 

 
Marine Cpl. Daniel J. Franke. Dec 15, 2011 U.S. Navy photo
by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason J. Perry

 

For more on Wounded Warriors go to: the Naval Medical Center Public Affairs office at (619) 532-9380.  To become a volunteer contact volunteer
coordinator Erin Lester at (619) 532-8156.

Sherryl Parks’s host for this piece was MC2 John O’Neill Herrera, Reviewer, Medical Articles, NMCSD Public Affairs Office.

 

 

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