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‘Life-changing’: Injured and disabled veterans surf La Jolla Shores for health and healing

“I’m a real surfer now,” Michelle Bennett said as she grabbed her board and headed into the waves at La Jolla Shores.

It was Bennett’s first time on a surfboard, though the Atlanta resident spent much of her service in the Marines stationed in San Diego, earning the title of Marine of the Year for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in 1983.

On Aug. 10, Bennett took a surf lesson, rode the waves and eventually stood up on the board to cheers from supporters as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic.

The annual clinic, which is being held this week from 9 a.m. to noon daily through Friday, Aug. 12, at various San Diego locations, offers adaptive sports and recreational activities (surfing, cycling, kayaking and sailing) to injured and disabled military veterans.

The event, now in its 15th year (it wasn’t held in 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), welcomes nearly 80 veterans from across the country who have injuries ranging from brain trauma to loss of limb. The veterans rotate through the activities and locations each day, with yoga or meditation lessons afterward.

The clinic’s main benefit is “showing everybody what they can do rather than focusing on what they can’t do.”

— Maggie Kremer, director of National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic

The surfing sessions begin every morning with a short orientation and lesson from Dana Cummings, a Marine veteran and an amputee who is the founder and president of AmpSurf, a nonprofit established to help people with disabilities and their families through adaptive surf therapy and other outdoor activities.

The veterans then hit the water, helped by volunteers to conquer the waves.

Bennett said the surf clinic motivated her the most of all the activities. “It caused me a little bit of panic with my PTSD, but I feel good.”

Surfing “is one of the most challenging things I have done since I’ve been in recovery as an adaptive athlete, a veteran with PTSD,” she said. “So I’m overcoming a lot of fears doing this today.”

Being able to surf is “life-changing,” Bennett said.

Maggie Kremer, director of the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, said the clinic’s main benefit is “showing everybody what they can do rather than focusing on what they can’t do.”

“A big component of recreation therapy and adaptive sports is helping them realize it might look a little bit differently than how they’re used to seeing it, but anything’s possible,” she said. “The possibilities are endless when you’re working with the right people.”

To participate in the clinic, veterans are referred by their primary care doctor to their local adaptive sports coordinator. Then they can apply to join the event.

The veterans are from all eras and branches of service. They can participate in two summer clinics, with a third on a case-by-case basis, Kremer said.

The clinics are paid for through the VA, team fundraising and nonprofit help.

Laura Michelle Grogan, who was on active duty for 24 years in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, said she took surfing lessons years ago but enjoyed this clinic for the camaraderie with other veterans of different backgrounds and levels of ability.

Grogan, a resident of Durango, Colo., who is in recovery from a traumatic brain injury, said “everybody has to either learn something new or work on some more skills.”

Annie Okerlin, who lives in Tampa, Fla., runs meditation sessions for the veterans after they surf during the clinic. She said it helps with the anxiety of traveling and trying new things.

The Summer Sports Clinic is always in San Diego. The VA also presents the Winter Games in Aspen, Colo., and the Golden Age Games — which include pickleball and shuffleboard — in varying locations. ◆