It’s the kind of San Diego day that makes you sing “Surfin’ USA” out loud.
Under a sunny, clear, blue sky, the mica flecks sparkle like gold in the sand. The white waves are big — eight to
10 feet, pounding in with attitude at high tide.
It’s only 9 a.m. and the thermometer registers 68 degrees. You have to check the calendar to confirm that it’s Feb. 9, not the Fourth of July.
“You’d catch ’em surfin’ at Del Mar. Inside, outside, USA,” as the Beach Boys song goes.
Brian Wilson could have written those lyrics about Dan Riley and Chris Decker. They’re riding the waves just off 20th Street in Del Mar.
Their Cheshire Cat smiles shine like high beams on sun-kissed cheeks; it looks like they’re having the time of their lives. They could be brothers, but they’re not — at least not by blood.
Decker, 38, a Pacific Beach resident and co-owner of Decker Brothers Gourmet, is a 20-year seasoned surfer. He volunteers every Thursday with the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) Surf Clinic. He helps wounded warriors like Riley learn the way of the waves as part of the rehabilitation process.
Riley, 26, a Marine Corps lance corporal, is a Purple Heart recipient. The Canadian native, who took the oath of American citizen after he joined the Marine Corps, lost both legs above the knee and the fingers on his left hand while on patrol in Marja, Afghanistan. It was Dec. 16, 2010 when the blast from a homemade bomb tore into Riley’s body. Four months ago, with his wounds healed just enough, he started surfing.
“It’s the one place that it doesn’t matter that I don’t have legs,” said Riley, who uses prosthetics, is able to drive and lives alone.
After an hour in the water, Riley rests on the shore as the roar of the waves grows louder.
“You wanna go bigger?” Decker taunts.
“Go big or go home,” Riley replies with a sly smile.
Back in they go, surfing tandem. By the time they call it a day, they’ve spent nearly four hours in the ocean.
“I guess once you’ve been blown up, you kind of lose a little bit of fear,” Riley said. “If a bomb is not going to get me, what’s a wave going to do?”
The surf clinic started when Betty Michalewicz-Kragh, an exercise physiologist at NMCSD, asked a soldier who lost an arm and a leg in the war what activity he would do again if he could. He said surf. She took action.
For the last four years, the surf clinic has been held in Del Mar. Michalewicz-Kragh also surfs with the wounded warriors. Their challenges are the price of freedom: neurological damage, post-traumatic stress disorder and the loss of limbs.
The benefits of surfing — physical, psychological and social — can’t be denied. The warriors’ bodies heal through increased core stability and improved strength. They sleep better and their pain is reduced, which helps them cut down on pharmaceuticals. And it lets them live in the moment.
“You’re not worried about the past or the future,” Riley said. “That wave, that time, that’s it.”
Surfing also helps military personnel connect with the diverse and supportive civilian community in San Diego.
Del Mar lifeguards were the first ones in the water when the clinic started. Help also comes from Challenged Athletes Foundation, Billabong, INT Softboards, the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and individuals like Decker and Allen Mitchell.
Every week, Mitchell brings a truckload of the lightweight American-made INT Softboards, which make the surfing easier and safer for amputees. He dons a wetsuit and gets in the water, too.
“Their smiles when they catch a perfect wave are priceless,” Mitchell said.
Decker, who typically surfs four times a week, looks forward to Thursdays.
“I absolutely have a blast,” he said. “I get to do what I love and teach really cool people how to surf. It’s great to work with guys who aren’t scared of anything.”
On the front of the board, Riley does spinners and hams it up for photographers on shore. From the back of the board, Decker knocks Riley into the water.
“It’s good having people who will still push you off a surfboard,” Riley said. “For me — and pretty much everybody out here —the last thing we want is to be felt sorry for.”
Decker gets that.
“You gotta treat these guys like another dude in the water,” he said. “They want to be part of the surf culture and its fun.”
When time allows, Decker and Riley get together on their own to bond in a brotherhood of surfing.
“To see Chris and Dan at the surf clinic is one thing,” Michalewicz-Kragh said. “But when they go surfing on their own, it’s like the birds fly off the nest, and I think, ‘Yes! Mission accomplished!’”
For more information or to volunteer, call (619) 532-8156, or visit the San Diego Armed Services YMCA at www.militaryymca.com.