By Kristina Houck
Christopher Montera learned how to surf when he was just 12 years old. After bilateral, above-the-knee amputations forced him to use a wheelchair, the soldier didn’t think he would ever be able to surf again.
Now, the San Diego native catches waves every Thursday in Del Mar.
“I surfed before I got hurt,” said Montera, 33. “When I heard about the Surf Clinic, I jumped at the opportunity to go.”
Roughly 70 injured active-duty military and veterans and their family members visit Del Mar each week for a therapeutic surf clinic managed by Naval Medical Center San Diego. Volunteers help the injured servicemen and women, several amputees like Montera, into their gear and into the water.
“I’m pretty much, right now, living in a chair,” said Montera, who was hit by an explosive device while serving in Afghanistan in March 2012. “In the water, it takes the weight off my spine. Surfing also let’s me let go of all the worries back on land. You get to just focus on one thing and do that, which is really nice.”
Betty Michalewicz-Kragh, an exercise physiologist in the health and wellness department at Naval Medical Center San Diego, founded the program in 2008 with a serviceman who had surfed all his life before he lost an arm and a leg in Afghanistan.
“Patients discover or rediscover the joy of surfing, and many times, they rediscover the joy of life,” said Michalewicz-Kragh. “We have many patients suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and they don’t remember how to enjoy the simple things in life. Through surfing, many times, they do.”
Michalewicz-Kragh said the program wouldn’t exist without the community support it has received, especially from the Del Mar lifeguards.
“The program relies very much on the community support,” Michalewicz-Kragh said. “The Del Mar lifeguards have been supportive and amazing since the day that we started this program. They make the wounded warriors feel very welcome.”
In addition to the lifeguards, the program has received support from nonprofits such as the Del Mar Foundation, which recently purchased two self-propelled, state-of-the-art sand wheelchairs in June, which were dedicated during a ceremony on July 11 at Del Mar’s Beach Safety Center.
“These people have given their life to protecting us and giving us our freedom,” said Robin Crabtree, chairwoman of the Foundation’s Grants Committee. “It’s the least we can do.”
Pat Vergne, the city’s director of community services and chief lifeguard, approached the organization about purchasing two sand wheelchairs for the program about two months ago. Within 24 hours, the Del Mar Foundation Board of Directors voted unanimously to purchase the wheelchairs.
“We weren’t meeting again until the end of June and decided we didn’t want to delay, so we circulated an email and voted via email to approve the funding,” explained Jill Weitzen MacDonald, president of the Del Mar Foundation.
Crabtree added the roughly $6,500 purchase was “something that everybody really wanted to do.”
“It’s one way we can support our veterans and help make our community, our beach, available for anyone with disabilities. I think these chairs will really help.”
Surf Clinic participants and all members of the public can rent the chairs from the lifeguards at the city’s Beach Safety Center.
“We have several wounded warriors that suffer from amputations and they need to get in and out from the beach,” Michalewicz-Kragh said. “Those wheelchairs that they got are really good because they can use them in the deep sand and they can use them independently, which is very important for these young guys. These guys are young and independent and they don’t like depending on anybody. They want to do their own thing.”
Montera said he’s excited to use the new wheelchairs and thankful for the support of the community.
“There’s a lot of good volunteers out there, a lot of good people who just want to come out and help,” he said. “That’s really awesome.”
For more information on how to become involved in volunteering or to make a donation to the Del Mar Foundation, please go to
or call 858-635-1363.