By Randy Bishop, Samaritan’s Purse writer
It was truly a privilege and honor to spend time with 44 military couples at the inaugural Operation Heal Our Patriots reunion at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, in late February. These men and women are true patriots because of their service to our country, and heroes because of their willingness to fight for their marriages.
Building on their time at Samaritan Lodge Alaska—the incredible setting where Operation Heal Our Patriots participants come for a week of adventure, Gospel-centered devotions, and biblically-based marriage classes—couples again benefited from marriage enrichment sessions during their weekend reunion.
“You are never at a point in your marriage where you can stop learning,” said General Jim Walker, executive director of Operation Heal Our Patriots.
Military marriages have never been easy, but since 9/11 the pressures have been tremendous. Multiple deployments into active, asymmetrical combat zones will change a person. It will alter the dynamics of a marriage and a family too.
“Each time I came back, I was a different man,” said Marine Staff Sergeant Harold Bean, who served four tours of combat in Iraq.
More than 5,200 service men and women have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 50,000 have been wounded in action. About 1,500 of those have undergone major limb amputations. Over 225,000 of those have suffered traumatic brain injuries since 2001, with 6,000 diagnosed as severe or penetrating and an additional 38,000 as moderate.
There have been more than 125,000 new diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder among all military branches since 2002. Our veterans have faced humanity’s mortality and depravity. They have had friends—some just teenagers—die in their arms. Survivors struggle with guilt and residual fear.
“Any time you’re in direct combat, it’s a horrific, scary circumstance,” Operation Heal Our Patriots Chaplain Jim Fisher told me. He served in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War.
When a wounded military member returns home, it is difficult for families to adjust to new physical limitations and deal with psychological trauma. Red tape and bureaucracy may complicate matters. Financial struggles are common. Many wives watch as husbands try to drown their grief with alcohol. For some wounded patriots and their loved ones, life turns into a series of bouts with chronic pain, bitter rage, numbing depression, and terrifying nightmares.
From my trip to Samaritan Lodge last summer and the reunion this winter, I’ve already heard multiple couples tearfully describe these or similar burdens. Not every family is in such dire straits, but all military families dealing with a war injury face steep challenges.
Operation Heal Our Patriots is intended to be a turning point, offering just what the name implies. It’s a chance for healing—healing for the family and the soul. Not only that, Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham told couples we are making a long-term commitment to them as they will be followed up on for life.
Focusing on the relationship with God and the spouse sets Operation Heal Our Patriots apart. Each speaker at the reunion pointed to the critical importance of having a saving relationship with Christ. Healing for individuals and marriages begins with being restored to our Creator by grace through faith.
While at The Cove, couples shared stories of profound impact stemming from their Operation Heal Our Patriots experience.
SSgt. Bean, injured by an explosion in Iraq, was saved at Samaritan Lodge Alaska last August, and he and his wife Melinda were baptized at their local church in September. Now they are daily walking out their faith and parenting their children according to biblical principles. They also renewed their marriage vows at the recent reunion.
“After we left (Alaska) we were on fire for the Lord. He is our hope,” Melinda said.
After years of terrible difficulty in their marriage, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Felix and Sandra Rivera are finally in church together with their son. When GySgt. Rivera, wounded in a truck bombing in Afghanistan, gave his life to Jesus at Samaritan Lodge Alaska, it was an answer to Sandra’s years of prayer.
Marine Staff Sergeant Walt Townsend could solve the world’s problems but not his own, he said. He turned to alcohol to cope with the death of his father and the loss of fellow Marines. With Operation Heal Our Patriots as a jump-start for his back-slidden Christian faith, he has made radical changes in recent months.
“I’ve really been working on being a better father and religious leader in our family,” said SSgt. Townsend, who was injured twice in Iraq.
Please pray for all the couples served by Operation Heal Patriots. Give thanks for recent salvations and for spiritual growth and renewal. Intercede for those whose faith and marriages are still struggling. Pray for others to come to Christ for the first time.