Couples participating in Operation Heal Our Patriots start their morning with a devotional from the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.” (Psalm 23:1-2)
“He leads me beside the still waters.”
Still waters have deep meaning for the wounded military personnel and their spouses who come to Alaska as guests of Samaritan’s Purse for a week of spiritual refreshment, physical renewal, and marriage enrichment. These veterans have literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now they are dealing with lifelong effects of traumatic injuries and haunting experiences that can threaten their marriages and families.
It is our prayer that here on the peaceful shores of shimmering Lake Clark, in the heart of one of America’s most majestic national parks, surrounded by the Christian witness of our chaplains and staff, that each of these couples will grow closer to each other and closer to the Lord.
“He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3)
“He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.”
There are no roads into Lake Clark National Park, so visitors arrive on small planes. The 200-mile flight from Anchorage is an unforgettable ride through a mountain pass, where couples gaze in wonder at sleeping volcanoes and blue-tinged glaciers that seem to descend from the clouds.
The scene is just as inspiring when their flight arrives on the gravel runway adjacent to Samaritan Lodge Alaska. These American heroes are greeted by waving flags and welcomed by hugs and handshakes from staff, volunteers, local residents, and schoolchildren.
Since Samaritan’s Purse launched Operation Heal Our Patriots in 2012, over 680 military couples have participated. The ones you will meet in these pictures were part of Week 12 in August 2016.
Outfitted in waders and life jackets, couples learn proper paddling technique before setting out in kayaks on the serene waters of Lake Clark’s Hardenburg Bay. Kayaking together is a fun exercise for couples as they learn how to depend on each other and navigate the realities of how their lives have been changed by war.
“This week has given us hope and more direction.”
Former Army Corporal Andrew Paulsen and his wife Natalie (above) have had to work through the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after he was wounded in an ambush in Afghanistan where two of his fellow soldiers were killed. “This week has given us hope and more direction,” Andrew said.
Our guides flew couples to some of their favorite fishing spots, where wives were just as successful as their husbands at catching lake trout, Arctic grayling, and northern pike. “We’re doing things together we’d never be able to do otherwise,” said Brandi Pearce (pictured below with pink jacket).
Her husband Eric is a medically retired Marine sergeant who was wounded in a 2010 explosion in Afghanistan and still has problems with balance. Overcoming that, he and Brandi together climbed the precarious slopes of Tanalian Mountain, the 3,904-foot peak that towers over Samaritan Lodge Alaska. They were first couple to make it to the top in 2016.
Couples also explored the waterfalls that cascade off the mountains surrounding Lake Clark. Below, Danny Delgado (in green jacket) helps Adam Welch (blue jacket) negotiate a slippery section of trail. Delgado and Welch were both Army sergeants who were wounded in separate incidents in Iraq in 2007.
Welch walks with a cane that bears a picture of Alex Varela, a private who took his place on what was supposed to be a routine mission in Baghdad. Varela was among six soldiers killed when a deeply buried bomb was detonated under their vehicle.
It’s always a profound moment when military couples see a bald eagle, our national symbol. This one was perched on a lakeside cliff where the trees had been ravaged by fire.
Throughout their week in Alaska, couples participate in classes and exercises led by our retired military chaplains. We want to help them learn Biblical principles to deal with the challenges they face as they cope with their wounds and learn how to strengthen their marriages.
Before the week is over, many take the “polar plunge” into the bone-chilling water of Lake Clark—including Patrick Myers (pictured below in his wheelchair) and his wife Mindy. Patrick is a retired Marine corporal and a third-generation military man who lost his legs and nearly died in a 2005 roadside explosion in Iraq that killed six members of his platoon. Two others have since committed suicide. “I thought God hated me,” Patrick said. “Now, after talking to the chaplains here, I realize He’s been with me the entire time.”
“I thought God hated me,” Patrick said. “Now, after talking to the chaplains here, I realize He’s been with me the entire time.”
Many veterans wear metal wristbands with the names of buddies who were killed in action. Some who are ready to leave their grief behind tack their bands to a memorial on the flagpole at Samaritan Lodge Alaska. Andrew Paulsen paid his respects to two of members of his Army unit, Andrew Martinek and Darryn Andrews, who were killed in the same 2009 ambush in Afghanistan where he was injured.
Through tears, he explained that all three of them had gone through basic training in Alaska, so it was appropriate for them to be remembered here. His fellow veterans saluted the fallen soldiers in a moment of silence.
Each week culminates with marriage rededication ceremonies and baptisms in the lake. Danny and Elayne Delgado and Shawn and Mary Young reaffirmed their wedding vows. Shawn and Mary Young and Brandi Pearce were baptized by chaplains Jim Fisher and Dan Stephens.
Only a few hundred people each year have the opportunity to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin in a remote corner of Lake Clark National Park. Proenneke was a Navy veteran in World War II who moved to Alaska at age 51, built a cabin by hand, and lived in the wilderness for over 30 years.
In the center of the picture below is K Schubeck, who knew Proenneke and now volunteers to maintain his remarkable homestead. She greeted three of our couples: Adam and Nikki Welch, Hugh and Jeanette McKinney, and Elayne and Danny Delgado.
“We thank Samaritan’s Purse that people care enough to help us get our lives back on track.”
Hugh McKinney (below) was 43 when he was deployed to Iraq with the Army National Guard. Two weeks from the end of an 18-month deployment in 2005, he was training Iraqi troops who turned out to be Al Qaeda infiltrators. They led his patrol into an ambush and used a cell phone to detonate a 100-pound shell strapped to a streetlight next to his vehicle. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that later resulted in a stroke.
Jeanette is his fulltime caregiver and also is an advocate for wounded veterans through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “We thank Samaritan’s Purse that people care enough to help us get our lives back on track,” Hugh said.
Their faith has remained strong throughout years of ordeal. “While he was in Iraq, the kids and I knelt in prayer nightly for him,” Jeanette said. Hugh is certain that God’s protection is the only way he survived the ambush and is alive today.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:4-6).