Since 2012, Operation Heal Our Patriots, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, has been providing Bible-based marriage enrichment training in Alaska to military couples dealing with post-9/11 combat injuries. One hundred and sixty couples—10 each week for 16 weeks—are scheduled to travel to our wilderness lodge between May 31 and September 18 this year. By the end of the summer season, the program will have served a total of well more than 500 couples in the past four years.
Each group of couples begins their special week greeted by Samaritan’s Purse staff and pilots in Anchorage. Their adventure soon gets underway as they fly 140 miles to our property in Port Alsworth, adjacent to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Most find the beauty of God’s creation—its “purple mountain majesties”—simply overwhelming as they travel past the glaciers and rivers of gorgeous Lake Clark Pass. For many, at least a little of their daily stress starts to simply melt away.
Arriving couples are greeted by dozens of flag-waving Port Alsworth residents alongside our staff and volunteers. It is a moment that nearly always brings smiles and, sometimes, tears. After shaking hands and soaking in the welcome, couples are escorted to their Samaritan Lodge cabins by our staff.
“From the very beginning, right when you get here, there’s a sense of welcome and love and serving,” said Becky Dean, wife of Marine Sergeant Mark Dean. The Oklahoma couple, married in 2003, was among the first 10 couples who traveled to Alaska this year.
Couples enjoy fishing around Lake Clark and points beyond. Stopping by an unnamed waterfall near the shore—and braving the cold cascade with full rain gear on—is just another one of the week’s many highlights. The Jay Hammond, our fully accessible fishing boat, offers participants a comfortable way to explore.
Some wounded veterans, particularly those with more severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), do not like going out in public, especially to crowded locations like restaurants. The small number of guests at Samaritan Lodge combined with the remote setting of the Lake Clark area offer couples a big, safe space to focus on each other—away from doctor’s appointments, children’s activities, and daily chores such as cooking and cleaning. For many couples this trip is the only “honeymoon” they’ve ever had.Army Corporal Josh McCart, who lost his hand as the result of an improvised explosive device in Iraq, gave his wife Amber an “engagement ring” during their visit to Alaska earlier this year. The couple’s first marriage ceremony was a simple courthouse wedding. To celebrate their 10th anniversary next year (2016), they plan to have a more traditional ceremony with family and friends, so the ring is essentially a commitment to planning that celebration.
Many couples make the two-mile trek to Tanalian Falls while staying at Samaritan Lodge. The hike offers visitors a glimpse of beaver ponds, birch and spruce forest, and several varieties of wildflower, with a torrent of water at the end. The pools of the falls make a great spot to fish together for Arctic grayling.
Military couples often face long periods of separation during overseas deployments and training. To have a chance to focus just on each other and enjoy exciting experiences together is a rare treat. Whether hiking or kayaking or fishing is their thing or not, it’s the shared memory that counts. Who doesn’t want to have a good fish story in common with their spouse?
Perhaps not surprisingly, the husbands and wives who travel to Alaska through our program are often quite competitive with one another over the size and quantity of fish they’ve hooked. That competition surely fuels plenty of good yarns to tell family and friends back home. Photos of fish smooches document some catches but there’s always the one that got away . . .
Daily, Bible-based marriage classes provide military couples the tools they need to strengthen their marriage. Taught by our staff of retired military chaplains, these classes cover such topics as family systems, love languages, reconciliation and forgiveness, seasons of marriage, and binding hearts in worship. Our chaplains also lead daily devotions for participants, and they and their wives also offer private spiritual counsel to patriot couples who request it.
“It’s been great—just what we needed,” Army Sergeant First Class Will Peavley said of his week in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots. An active-duty Ranger, Will has been deployed five times to Iraq and seven to Afghanistan, including a 2010 deployment during which he was shot in the left arm while clearing a building in Kunar Province. Initially, that wound made even something as simple as eating a challenging chore. After a difficult period of recovery, he returned to regular duties, only missing one deployment with his unit.
Both committed Christians, Will married Katie nearly 10 years ago, and they now have two children. The Savannah, Georgia, couple greatly appreciated time alone together in Alaska to focus on their marriage.
Sergeant Josh Winland served his country as a Marine from 2006 until his medical retirement in 2014. He did one combat tour in Iraq and another one in Afghanistan. He also traveled to Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia on humanitarian missions.
Josh, who has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and his wife, Kristine, have been through some rough times since being married in March 2010. Things hit their low after he returned from Afghanistan in 2012. The horrors he witnessed there combined with the tragedies he saw in previous deployments left him reeling. Then, he took a bad fall in the bathroom at his home one night—an incident that revealed other problems.
“I hit my head and I went to the emergency room,” he said. “That’s when I developed a stutter and ended up going to TBI clinic for about four months. They were saying it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. They diagnosed me with a TBI at that point. Being blown up all those times [four times in Iraq], and when I fell, I hit it just the right way.”
Since moving to Dallas, Georgia, near Josh’s family, about a year ago, Josh and Kristine have found hope and spiritual health in Christ. Josh was saved as a teen and walked away from the Lord for many years. “Now I’m coming back,” he said. “Cedarcrest [his local church] just kind of put me on fire for Him.”
Kristine received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior not long after the move to Georgia. She was baptized during the couple’s stay in Alaska.
Mark Dean met Becky in a tenth-grade Spanish class in Oklahoma. Two years later they were dating, and, another two years after that, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. The couple eloped while he was in the School of Infantry for the Marines.
“It’s been a roller-coast ride ever since,” Becky said.
Mark, who battles TBI, PTSD, and neck and back injuries, served three combat deployments in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. “I’ve been blown up about 27 different times,” he said.
One time he had a live mortar land three feet from him. “If a mortar lands three feet from you, you should be dead,” Becky said.
“My buddy told me he saw angel’s wings around my body as the dust rose from the impact,” Mark said. “There’s a reason why I’m still here.”
At the end of their time in Alaska, Mark and Becky rededicated their marriage to Christ. Becky repeatedly described their experience as one of healing.
“One of our devotions [in Alaska] was [about] how the shepherd leads the sheep. Sometimes the shepherd just has to grab the sheep by the neck and push him down to rest. That’s, in a sense, what we’ve had to do here—just be away from work, soccer, kids, groceries, dinner,” Becky said. “It’s just a time to heal and focus on your marriage.”
Both Mark and Becky remarked on the genuine concern of the Operation Heal Our Patriots staff and are impressed that the program has a thorough aftercare program in place. “It’s amazing. It’s not just a check in the box for them. They really care,” Mark said.
“They’re going to stay by your side through everything,” Becky said. “They keep in contact with you and then there’s a reunion every year. I feel that’s really important.”
Marine Staff Sergeant Adel Abudayeh served five combat deployments during his military career. Among his injuries are TBI, PTSD, shrapnel in numerous areas of his body, two hernias, and post-compartment syndrome from a gunshot wound in his right leg. He has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal (for acts of valor in combat) and three Purple Hearts.
His Bronze Star Medal citation recognizes his service during his final deployment in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. A portion of the statement reads: “During an engagement on 24 November 2009 in the Helmand Province, Staff Sergeant Abudayeh identified an enemy element flanking an adjacent unit. He exposed himself to enemy observation in order to fire on them, effectively disrupting the enemy’s attack. Despite being wounded in the shoulder, Staff Sergeant Abudayeh continued engaging the enemy while providing his unit accurate direction.”
While Adel served meritoriously overseas, the marriage he returned home to was nonetheless falling apart.
“When I came back from my last deployment, we were ready to get divorced,” Adel said. “We were absolutely ready. She wanted it. I wanted it. But we just fought through it.”
“We did marriage counseling, and we were able to make it work,” said Adel’s wife, Dana. She met Adel in 2006 while she was also in the Marine Corps, stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. The couple moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, in 2007.
Though their marriage stabilized, Dana knew she and her husband were not on the same spiritual track. She was saved as a girl, but fell away for some time. Yet, over the past few years—and particularly in the last six months—Dana has been steadily growing closer to Christ again. Adel, on the other hand, did not have that personal relationship to the Lord.
Dana came to her Operation Heal Our Patriots week in Alaska with high hopes for change, and, in answer to many prayers, God moved through the witness of our staff and chaplains. She rededicated her life to God. Adel realized where he stood with his Creator and decided to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. The North Carolina couple committed their marriage to Him and both were baptized.
“Being able to come here is just a huge blessing,” Dana said. “My husband asked Jesus into his life. That’s what I was hoping for this trip and God answered.”
Adel thanked Samaritan Lodge staff for the caring environment they created: “You guys are doing something great. We can see it. We can feel it—the love that comes from all of you. What you guys are doing is helping us get on that right path.”
At the end of each week, military couples have an opportunity to renew their marriage vows. Our chaplains lead a public ceremony during which husbands and wives commit their families to live under Christ and His Word. Since 2012, more than 150 couples have rededicated their marriages through Operation Heal Our Patriots. This number continues to expand weekly through the summer season, which ends in September.
During Week One of 2015, 11 participants were baptized in the take-your-breath-away waters of Lake Clark’s Hardenberg Bay. Some come to Samaritan Lodge as relatively recent converts who want to be baptized during their week of marriage enrichment in Alaska. Others are saved in Alaska and want to publicly profess that as soon as possible.
Army Sergeant Andrew Berry of St. Cloud, Florida, rededicated his life to Christ and his wife, Becky, gave her life to the Lord for the first time. The couple has four sons, ages 7 to 14, and look forward to following Jesus together.
“I’ve put this woman through so much,” Andrew said of Becky. As a soldier, Andrew survived two bullet wounds and eight bomb blasts. An improvised explosive device ended his career, leaving him with PTSD, TBI, an injured right leg and lower back, and other wounds.
Becky told Andrew in Alaska, “If you’re the head of the household, I want to take your leadership.”
Andrew immediately understood the importance of being spiritually in-sync. “It’s easier as a family to do this than as an individual.”
Marine Sergeant Joe Mejias received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and was baptized while in Alaska.
“I’ve been battling with my faith for a very long time. I grew up in a home where it was pretty pressured on me and I struggled with it,” Joe said. “Even after I got married, Britt was asking, ‘We should find a church; we should find a church.’ I would always avoid it. I could always see the signs that the Holy Spirit was tugging at me, but I ignored it. I turned my back to it. My son, who is five, absolutely loves the Lord. He’s always telling me Jesus is his best friend and stuff like that. Whenever I was feeling bad, and I was down, and I was in a dark place, he’d always come up to me and [say], ‘Daddy, Jesus loves you, you know that, right?’ So, I just got tired of fighting. I’m tired of fighting, I’m tired of turning my back, I’m tired of letting him down. So, I think it was about time to surrender and give in.
“I knew I had to make a decision, take a leap of faith, to accept Him [Christ] into my life, my marriage, and as a father,” Joe concluded.
Brittany, already a believer, and Joe committed their marriage to Christ in a ceremony just before Joe’s baptism.
Couples say goodbye to each other and to staff around the fire pit on Friday afternoons. Each couple receives a signed study Bible before they board our planes and depart Samaritan Lodge. The good news is that these are likely not the last hugs they will receive from our staff. An annual reunion and other connections through our aftercare program ensure opportunities for additional encouragement.