Wounded troops rehabilitate in Del Mar surf

Looking at 23-year-old Elmer Ugarte waxing his surfboard outside the 17th Street Del Mar Lifeguard Station, you wouldn’t know a sniper shot him in the chest while he was patrolling in Iraq two years ago.

Ugarte, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, came to the Naval Medical Center San Diego to heal from severe internal damage, including a punctured lung. Along with traditional physical therapy exercises to build up core strength and breathing capacity, Ugarte’s rehabilitation regime also includes surfing.

“It’s some of the best therapy I have ever had, just being out in the water,” Ugarte said, who also has post-traumatic stress disorder. “Some of the best exercise and some of the best friendships.”

Ugarte is one of the dozen or so service members and veterans who surf with the Del Mar Lifeguards every Thursday morning. The surf sessions are part of the Balboa Warrior Athletes Program, which offers sports training to help injured troops recover and achieve greater independence.

Surfing was added to the program about a year ago when Army Sgt. Wally Fanene, who lost an arm and a leg, wanted to surf again. When the Del Mar Lifeguards were approached to help, they were more than willing.

“They found a very cool, laidback way of doing it very, very safely,” said Betty Michalewicz-Kragh, an exercise physiologist at the naval hospital. “They make the wounded warriors feel at home.”

Lifeguard Nate Brown served in the Navy for five years and said helping injured troops learn or relearn to surf was a natural fit.

“The most important thing is guys doing it on their own, building confidence,” Brown said. “I try to make that easier without being overly involved.”

Ugarte said he enjoys surfing with the lifeguards because they point out the best waves to catch, but laugh with him when he wipes out.

“They care that I’m injured by they don’t treat me like I am, that’s the best part about it,” Urgate said.

Physical therapy becomes a much more positive experience when troops are able to get out of the hospital and into the water, Michalewicz-Kragh said.

“It’s a whole body, soul, spirit thing,” she said.

The troops get the exercise they need without focusing on their injuries. They come out of the water smiling, more relaxed, and the exhausting workout helps many with post-traumatic stress disorder sleep better, she said.

As they improve and gain more physical independence, the athletes feel confident enough to surf on their own. Time in the water also empowers them to navigate other challenges they face with their injuries.

“It’s really dynamic,” Brown said of surfing. “You don’t deal with the same challenge twice, it teaches you to adapt.”

Brice Brokaw understands this all too well. A surfer before he lost his right leg in a 2006 motorcycle accident, the U.S. Coast Guard veteran is learning to surf with his prosthetic leg.

“It’s a lot more difficult,” Brokaw said. “Standing up on a prosthetic leg is five times harder.”

But the peacefulness of the ocean and the camaraderie with other surfers has helped him remain upbeat about life with his injury.

“It makes me unique,” Brokaw said. “Some people see it as a deficiency. I see it as an asset, I try to.”