Monday, July 8, 2013

In Alaska with Samaritan's Purse: Operation Heal Our Patriots

I will start by saying that there is no way for me to put in words what this experience did for us and for me, words just cannot do the experience justice.

A couple months ago I heard about an Alaskan marriage retreat for wounded warrior couples and I applied for it. Samaritan's Purse Operation Heal Our Patriots. I chose some dates at the end of the summer and thought I could turn it down if I couldn't make it work within that few months. On Thursday we got a call from Dustin with Samaritan's Purse saying that a couple had cancelled and wondered if we could fill the opening but that we'd be flying out of Portland on Sunday. Holy moly...could we actually do this? Sierra and Jeremiah (our teenagers) would be coming out to spend the next two weeks with us the next day so they would be here to watch little Dean, we had no appointments so our calendar was free, and then...the week was 4th of July and that would be a BLESSING to miss the fireworks and be out in middle-of-nowhere Alaska! Both Dean and I have never both been away from lil Dean and this would be for 6 days, but I thought he could do it. So we accepted their invitation. Then the nerves started fraying. I was worried that we may be doing the wrong thing by leaving him with his siblings, I worried about doing something for ourselves while leaving the children behind, I worried about the possibility of the plane crashing and then lil Dean would have no parents. I was worrying like crazy! I got our affairs in order and decided to hush my fears and know that I always second guess my decisions to do anything nice for myself.Everything fell into place, we packed up and headed to the airport on Sunday morning.

We flew a direct flight into Anchorage and then loaded on a small plane that held maybe 12 people and flew out to the middle of nowhere, Port Alworth.
The only way to get there is by plane and many if not all the locals own a small plane.

As we were approaching the air strip we could see over 100 people lined up holding American flags and eagerly awaiting our arrival. It was crazy! I couldn't believe it! When we got off the plane everyone shook our hands and by the end of the crowd I was holding back tears. I couldn't believe all these people were so appreciative of Dean's service and our sacrifice, it was amazing!

We went to the dining hall and had lunch and got some introductions. One introduction was to the famous world renowned French chef, Jean Claude. He had been the private chef for Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Kennedy. This man's cooking was amazing!!! Definitely something we won't forget!

We met a couple who had lived in Port Alsworth for 38 years (their house is the one you see nestled in those trees out there).

Then we headed to our cabin, Coyote 2. It was beautifully decorated in a rustic cabin decor. There was a big fluffy bed, private en suite, and modest furnishings complete with a hand-crafted rocking chair which was really comfortable.

The camp has many cabins and is nicely laid out with wooden walkways leading to all the other cabins. All the guest cabins are on the lake and have beautiful views of the water and the mountains which surround everything.

The camp if run by some paid staff and lots of volunteers! These volunteers are all Christian people who exude the love of Christ and are NOT religiously pushy at all!!! They just have love, concern, compassion, and caring pouring out of them! It was such a blessing to be in their presence!

Throughout the week we attended daily marriage strengthening classes, daily devotion, and various activities that we could sign up for.

Since Dean can't physically (due to TBI he gets too fatigued) do things that have too much time away from a bed, too much moving, too much noise, too many people/busy-ness, we signed up for one activity together. One day we went out on the Jay Hammond (a fishing boat) and went fishing for pike. Dean caught two of them, one of which got him the title local "famous" pike catcher since it was the biggest they'd seen. It was funny that for days random people would stop me and say "Hey, your husband is the one that caught that huge pike". I jokingly told Dean not to be surprised if some local media came to do a story on him....hahaha. Dean took it easy every other day.

His other outing was a day out on the Track Chair when we "walked" out to the visitor center and he could see/touch some animal pelts, we got to see giant bear paws, and we bought some stuff to bring home to the kids. One of the days I ventured out without him since the activity would only take me away from the camp for 3 hours (Dean would likely sleep for the entire 3 hours so he'd be fine). I went to see Dick Proenneke's cabin which was just so very cool. This guy is worth learning about!

There was other types of fishing activites, a hike, and a bear viewing day that couples could choose to take part in as well.

Before we went, I'd heard of Billy Graham, but didn't think much of him. I know he's an important guy to Christians but as a Catholic I was more accustomed to listening to guys who spoke about Catholicism. I never knew anything about Franklin Graham and even if I had I wouldn't have thought much about him either? I got to meet, talk with, have dinner with, and sit around the campfire with Franklin many times this week. I'm not talking like a group of people listening to him talk or anything like that. I'm talking about Dean and I hanging out together and Franklin walking up and asking us about our day and ending up sitting down to have a more deep conversation about life in general. This man is the most normal guy who really has love and caring pouring out of him as well. He's a real man's man type of guy, not at all what I would have thought! At the beginning of the week the staff had told us that a copy of Franklin's book was in our cabin and ours to keep. I thought, "who is Franklin and why would I want to read about him"? By the end of the week I wanted to know more about him and on the plane home I started reading his book. The book is his autobiography Rebel With Cause and as I read the beginning of how he described parts of who he was as a child I had an even greater appreciation for him as the child he was could easily be seen in the man I met! He is a genuine man! What a treat to meet him, his wife Jane, and his daughter Cissie and her husband Corey. They are not a "show" family where they strut around showing themselves to the public for attention or because they realize they are in the spotlight, they came there because Operation Heal Our Patriots is a CAUSE they all believe in!!! They really are thankful to the men and women who fight to keep America free and they really want to give back to the warriors and their families who sacrifice for them. It isn't a media stunt for them! That was so touching to learn over the course of this week. I began to look back and the townsfolk greeting us as we got off the plane and the staff and volunteers and realized that they are there because Franklin led them by example!

One night we all went to Doc Furman's cabin. He's the surgeon who with Franklin started World Medical Mission where they sign doctors and surgeons up to volunteer their skills in very poor countries. His cabin was amazing! He has a God's view of a beautiful lake. It was quite an honor to go to his home for dessert and then we all shared stories of love in our marriage. One wounded warrior, Will, told a story of of when he was in the hospital after being wounded and losing his leg. He told the doctors and nurses he wanted to learn to kneel first rather than walk so that he could get down on one knee to propose to his then girlfriend, Kat. It was such a touching story it brought tears to my eyes. The most touching part was that I had been getting to see them interact all week long and they are just an amazing couple! His story was really icing on the cake :)  The other story that seemed to stick with everyone was the one Dean told. He said that I was his perfect partner and that if there was such a thing as a wife store he couldn't design a more perfect woman than me! That just got everyone teary eyed and then all the guys started joking about if the wife store took returns or gave military discounts...hahaha. It was so touching to get to hear about all the marriage stories through deployments and wounds and hospital stays how everyone grew through the many hardships they faced.

The last day we had a church service which was strange for me as it wasn't a Catholic Mass. It wasn't that bad..we sang some songs and Chaplain Fisher did a great job leading the service. After that there would be some baptisms and I was so surprised to see that 4 couples' lives had changed that week to such a degree that they wanted Jesus in their hearts and in their marriages. Eight people got baptized that day in the frigid water. That day definitely brought tears to my eyes! I loved hearing people's testimonies about how they were touched by God that week!

Later that last day, we were all gathered around the campfire and shared stories of thanks for the beautiful week. The staff shared their thoughts and the couples shared theirs. Lots of tears were shared there as well. We learned that the three-person cleaning staff who went each day and changed out our towels, made our beds, and tidied up our rooms had also stood together and prayed for us while in our rooms! That was the most touching thing I think I had heard all week! They took the time and energy to actually care about the couple that was in each room. I assumed as anyone would, that when they came into clean they were sticking to a schedule and getting their work done, but cleaning our rooms wasn't just "work" to them. It was their way of imparting love on us, it was their way of letting Jesus work through them, it was their way of blessing us. Each couple was then given a study Bible signed by Franklin Graham and with personal messages signed by the staff and volunteers to each of us.

Then came the very sad good-byes. The staff shared with us all that this really wasn't "good-bye" but a "see you later" since we'd all be coming to an all expense paid reunion in North Carolina in February! I can't wait to see everyone again as well as every other week's couples!

At the beginning of the week the staff told us that we'd be becoming part of their family this week and when they said those words I thought that was a "thing to say" like people who often ask "how are you" when they really don't want to know. By the end of the week we REALLY WERE part of their family! They showed it, they lived it, they proved it all week!


  1. Not sure how often you check your blog but if you get this message in the next few days, I'm looking to connect with National Guard families who are helping a service member with a TBI for an article I'm writing on the topic. I would love to connect with you: (

  2. Here's the article that Janine wrote so well :)