Operation Heal Our Patriots, the Samaritan’s Purse ministry to military personnel wounded or injured since 9/11 and their spouses, provides marriage enrichment and physical refreshment while offering the encouragement that comes only through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Each week for 15 weeks this summer, couples experience God’s healing love through the caring community created by staff and volunteers at Samaritan Lodge.
The time in Alaska begins with a moving welcome when they arrive in Port Alsworth. Town residents and Samaritan’s Purse staff wave flags, hold signs, and offer hugs and handshakes. Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham and his wife Jane (below, at left) greeted guests in July as they stepped onto the landing strip.
Couples participate in a variety of outdoor activities, daily devotions, and marriage enrichment courses while staying at Samaritan Lodge Alaska. Each opportunity is designed to draw husbands and wives closer to each other and to God. Time alone together in God’s grand creation—far away from work, phones, computers, and household responsibilities—can be truly refreshing and revitalizing to a relationship.
Army Command Sergeant Major Osvaldo (Oz) Colón and his wife Eileen (above, in front of Samaritan Lodge sign) of Weeki Wachee, Florida, were married in 1980. After serving in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Oz retired from the Army in 2007 with 30 years of service behind him.
During her husband’s deployment in the first Gulf War, Eileen received Christ as Lord and Savior. Oz was saved seven years later. “When I finally surrendered, it was life-changing,” Oz said.
He later returned from his 2005-2006 tour in Iraq struggling with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “It’s not an easy path and I still struggle, but with my wife on my side and the Lord being the center of our marriage, it’s helped me cope with PTSD and TBI,” he said. “[I] feel that I am loved and cared for, that I’m not useless anymore.”
“Coming to this here and knowing that people appreciate us veterans makes a big difference,” Oz said. “It helps the healing process.”
Beholding the awe-inspiring vistas of Alaska, Eileen said she was reminded of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” “That’s all I was thinking about as I was seeing all the beauty right before me,” she said. “It was amazing. I’m having a great time.”
“Coming out here will help any marriage, guaranteed,” said former Army Specialist Josh Gettings of Enid, Oklahoma. Josh, who was wounded by gunfire and shrapnel in his left leg and hip in Afghanistan, and his wife Kama (above, standing at Dutch door) discovered new perspectives on their relationship through daily marriage classes they attended while in Alaska.
Army veteran Justin Worley and his wife Jessica (below) of West Jefferson, North Carolina, shared a romantic moment before heading out on an excursion. Justin served in Afghanistan as a gunner from May 2012–May 2013. On October 1, 2012, he was among the first responders to a Taliban suicide attack in Khost Province that killed three U.S. troops and at least 11 other people.
Justin and Jessica celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by renewing their marriage vows under God on the shores of Lake Clark. They said their time at Samaritan Lodge encouraged them to get involved again in a local church.
Many Operation Heal Our Patriots couples enjoy a hike to Tanalian Falls. In addition to viewing the falls, participants can fly-fish for Arctic grayling in the pools beneath the rushing water.
Army Sergeant David Edwards and his wife Alexis (below, couple holding fishing rod) of Fort Stewart, Georgia, were married in 2012. After six years in the military and one combat deployment each to Iraq and Afghanistan, David deals with PTSD, TBI, and nerve damage to his left leg severe enough that he uses a cane.
David and Alexis received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior during their week in Alaska and were baptized. “We both dedicated our lives to Christ. It’s something new for us. We can’t wait to leave everything behind and start fresh,” Alexis said.
Daily activities draw couples closer and leave them with lasting memories together, a luxury they did not have during long deployments to Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Participants can enjoy hiking, fishing, kayaking, and wildlife watching as they visit Lake Clark National Park and Katmai National Park.
“I think this program is beyond amazing,” Melissa Figueroa said.
Melissa and her husband, Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Figueroa (below, fishing couple/front kayakers) of Oceanside, California, both grew up in Miami and were married in April 2011. Michael served two combat deployments to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006 and 2007 and struggles with PTSD. At week’s end, both Michael and Melissa were baptized in Lake Clark as a sign of their rededication to the Lord.
“Even though we’ve strayed,” she said before being baptized, “He’s brought us to this wonderful place and what better place to commit ourselves to God than here.”
Couples, such as Army veterans Kim and Brian Avalos (below, red cap), attend daily marriage enrichment sessions focused on healing and growing their relationship. These classes, led by retired military chaplains and their wives, give helpful tools and resources to work with when they return home. The final session, based on Ecclesiastes 4:9–12, focuses on binding hearts in worship of Christ.
Ken Church, a retired Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq, and his wife Dawn (below, posing with bull moose skull) of Statesville, North Carolina, benefitted from the class on conflict, saying they learned that they must stop bringing the past into current arguments. “My husband came home from war and now we’re at war at home,” Dawn said. “It’s time to stop throwing grenades . . . and have no more ammunition.”
The couple renewed their marriage vows later in the week and both were baptized as well. Before being baptized, Ken told the gathered crowd, “I’ve done wrong. I want to straighten it out with God. I want to be the man of the house for my family—to be there for my kids, my wife—to be strong for them and let the Lord guide me.”
Dawn put it simply. “I just want a fresh start.”
Folk hero, naturalist, carpenter, and filmmaker, Dick Proenneke built an extraordinary cabin by hand deep in Alaska’s remote wilderness and lived there for most of 31 years, from 1968-1999. Often, couples fly to his historic cabin on the shores of Upper Twin Lake. National Park Service volunteers give them a guided tour of the site, from which Dick once tirelessly filmed and journaled the surrounding wilderness in an effort to have it preserved for future generations.
Marine Sergeant Mike Jacobs and his wife Tracy (below left) slowed down long enough to pose for a portrait during the trip, looking out from the Dutch door at Proenneke’s cabin.
“This is the best time we’ve had together in the last nine years,” Mike said of his experience with Tracy in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots. Mike deals with TBI and PTSD after serving in Iraq in 2008 and in Afghanistan from 2009-2010.
Mike wrote his own marriage vows for the rededication ceremony on Friday, expressing his desire to be a better husband and father. Tracy was surprised by the gesture. “He has a hard time expressing feelings and that was a lot.”
“These past nine years next week have been a journey, a rocky road,” she said. “But it only makes us grow stronger.”
Samaritan’s Purse staff, volunteers, town residents, and other participants were rooting for six couples who rededicated their marriages on a Lake Clark beach on August 1. (Kissing couples, pictured above, left to right: Juan and Tanya Montealvo, Mike and Tracy Jacobs, Oz and Eileen Colón, Justin and Jessica Worley, Edward and Sara Jordan, Ken and Dawn Church).
Couples repeated vows asking for forgiveness for past wrongs and promising to offer grace in the future. They pledged to build their family on a firm foundation of Jesus Christ and His Word.
Tanya Montealvo of Houston, Texas, wore a wreath of willow and fireweed, handmade with others the night before. She and Juan (below, wreath in hair during ceremony) also exchanged homemade rings of three cords, symbolic of Ecclesiastes 4:12, a passage all the couples studied earlier in the morning during the week’s final marriage class.
Following the marriage renewals, eight individuals were baptized, including Juan and Tanya, and David Edwards (below, arms raised above head).
“Baptism, to me, is just a new beginning,” Tanya said. “And I’m ready to start a new beginning with my husband and walking along with Jesus Christ.”
The couple had earlier trusted Christ, in January, through a local pastor in the El Paso area. “When I accepted Christ, it was like my head just opened up and this good stuff kept pouring in,” said Juan, a retired Army staff sergeant who suffers with the effects of a compound TBI.
After returning home, couples receive long-term support through the Operation Heal Our Patriots aftercare program, which includes prayer, spiritual counsel, regular personal contact, help finding a local church, and an annual reunion. Your prayer and financial support enable Samaritan’s Purse to continue this important ministry to our nation’s patriots. For more information on the ministry of Samaritan’s Purse go to: www.samaritanspurse.org