Surf Therapy A Wave Of Relief For Returning Vets

Hundreds of men and women are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and emotional scars. Their problems range from traumatic brain injuries to the loss of body parts. Many face long, excruciating months of rehabilitation — and for some, their therapy leads them to the beaches of southern California. From member station KQED, Scott Shafer reports.

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Thousands of men and women are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with problems ranging from traumatic brain injuries to the loss of limbs. For some, a day of therapy is a day at the beach. According to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, surfing promotes physical and emotional well being for these wounded warriors.

From member station KQED, Scott Shafer has more.

SCOTT SHAFER: On a recent morning in a seaside parking lot in Del Mar, California, a few soldiers and Marines unpack their surfboards and slip into their wetsuits, anticipating the morning's first big wave.

Specialist JOE SERENO(ph) (United States Army): I'm going to get pounded today, man.

SHAFER: One of them is 21-year-old Army Specialist Joe Sereno.

Spc. SERENO: Waves are going to crush. It's going to be fun though.

SHAFER: Sereno and his buddies were seriously injured in Iraq. The Naval Medical Center is using surf lessons to help them recover. Before they head out to the ocean, a lifeguard tells them what to expect.

Unidentified Man #1: Should be pretty good. Looks clear. So, waves are good form, one to three feet. Looks fun. So, you guys should have a great day.

SHAFER: Fifty yards from the shore, Sereno is holding onto his surfboard, looking for the next big wave to catch.

Hey, how's it going?

Spc. SERENO: Chillin', dude.

SHAFER: How do you feel?

Spc. SERENO: Perfect. Hanging two.

SHAFER: Hanging two, rather than hanging 10, is Sereno's way of joking about his injuries. He lost all 10 of his toes along with both his legs in Iraq. At this moment, out here in the Pacific Ocean, Sereno leaves that disability far behind.

Spc. SERENO: The waves were riding very, very long, so I'm having a lot fun. Relaxing and catching some all the way in.

SHAFER: Standing on the beach, the boyish native of Palmdale, California recounts the day, two and a half years ago, when his truck hit a roadside bomb.

Spc. SERENO: I remember being in the truck, chest full of water and next thing I know, my hands are zipped tight to my back and my sergeant major is cutting my leg off with a machete.

SHAFER: Sereno lost both his legs above the knee. During months of therapy, he learned to walk again with two prosthetic limbs. As his rehabilitation progressed, his physical therapist asked if he was interested in learning to surf as part of his rehab.

Spc. SERENO: I've never surfed before I lost my legs. As soon as I got on the water on that surfboard, dude, that was it, and I fell in love with it.

SHAFER: Sereno likes the cardio workout he gets from surfing. All that paddling back and forth is aerobic exercise and it really helps his frame of mind.

Spc. SERENO: It's challenging, you know, to do things that normal people can do. And when I can get out there and do it, it's just, it boosts my ego. You know, it's like, yeah, I can do it, you know, and get stoked about it.

SHAFER: Sereno removes his custom-made legs before hitting the beach. Some of the surfers, missing an arm or just one leg, manage to get up and stand on the board out in the ocean. For Sereno, it's more about sitting up on the board and riding through the waves.

Betty Michalewicz, an exercise therapist from the Naval Medical Center puts it this way.

Ms. BETTY MICHALEWICZ (Exercise Therapist, Naval Medical Center): Surfing is way more than just standing up. It's about reading the waves. It's about maneuvering in the waves.

SHAFER: Michalewicz started this therapy program just over a year ago. She says a lot of amputees developed back pain. And surfing, because it builds up the back muscles, can help prevent that.

Not all the wounded surfers here are amputees. Marine Lance Corporal Elmer Ugarte was shot in the chest while on patrol in Iraq. Afterwards, he had trouble breathing and lost his core strength.

Lance Corporal ELMER UGARTE (United States Marine Corps): Things a normal Marine would have to do, I couldn't do. I had to get taught how to do all that again.

SHAFER: The 22-year-old San Diego native removes his shirt and reveals two scars: a massive one running down the middle of his stomach, the other on his chest. There were psychological scars, too. Like many returning soldiers and Marines, Ugarte suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He got help and says he's better now.

Lance Cpl. UGARTE: When you're out there you're pretty much relaxed. You're at peace. Your board is your sanctuary. And you're just waiting for that smooth ride to bring you in. And you paddle the hell back out before those problems catch up to you again.

SHAFER: Ugarte says surfing has helped build up his core strength again and the tranquility he finds in the sea helps heal his emotional wounds and ultimately will help get him back to active duty sooner.

As for Joe Sereno, he's a new dad. Laura Lee Sereno(ph) is just a month old. He already has big plans for her.

Spc. SERENO: I'm just looking forward to her growing up with me, you know. It's great. And…

SHAFER: Do you think you might take her out here one day?

Spc. SERENO: Oh, definitely, dude. I'm going to show that little girl how to surf - going to be a pro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAFER: In fact, Sereno says, he might even want to become a surf instructor himself one day.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Diego.

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