Operation Heal Our Patriots staff visit retiring Marine couples in North Carolina to offer encouragement
Early retirement is the dream of many in the civilian world. But to enlisted Marines, early retirement almost always means only one thing: you got blown up good. And no one wants that.Support Operation Heal Our PatriotsWhen Marine Sergeant Jeremiah Marcum left for boot camp at age 18 in 2003, he had every intention of making a career of it—20 years at least. Inspired to become one of the few and the proud in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the recent high school grad was determined to make a positive difference in the world through his military service.
He completed boot camp and subsequently served three combat tours in Iraq before winding up in Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2011.
On August 10 of that year, two major blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) altered the future he once envisioned. First, his vehicle hit an 80-lb. IED. Then, the shaken Marine was moved to another vehicle, which soon after struck a 100-lb. IED. The second explosion rendered him unconscious for over 24 hours.
His brain has not been quite the same since. That’s probably the simplest way to put it, and the best explanation of why he was medically retired from the Marine Corps on April 29, 2014, at age 28.
A career he hoped would last two decades or longer ended abruptly in just under 11 years, due primarily to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Marine Sergeant Chris Van Dyken’s story is similar. He arrived at boot camp at age 17, and completed his training two days after the 9/11 attacks. He also loved his duties and planned to retire after a normal career. He too was wounded by an IED (Afghanistan, 2009) and suffers from TBI and PTSD.
Instead of the career he envisioned, he was just 30 when a ceremony marking his retirement was held on April 29 at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., just minutes before Jeremiah’s Marcum’s ceremony was held at the same spot.
For many young, injured warriors like Jeremiah and Chris, as well as their spouses, the forced transition to civilian life often proves exceedingly stressful. However, a relationship with a loving heavenly Father, along with the support of family and Christian community, can provide peace in the storm.
That’s where Operation Heal Our Patriots comes into the mix.
Alaska Is Just the Start
Jeremiah and his wife, Janice, and Chris, and his wife, Morgan, are both active participants in Operation Heal Our Patriots, the Samaritan’s Purse ministry to members of the armed forces wounded after 9/11 and their spouses.
The first component of the project is an extraordinary weeklong retreat in the small wilderness town of Port Alsworth, Alaska.Up in America’s last frontier, staff chaplains offer marriage enrichment classes, daily devotions, and private counseling. Husbands and wives also explore nearby rivers, lakes, forests, and tundra through kayaking, fishing, hiking, and wildlife-watching excursions.
The summer retreat is for the vast majority an exciting shared adventure that bonds them together and provides useful tools to build a healthier marriage. For many, it also marks the beginning of a new or renewed walk with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The Marcums and Van Dykens both went to Port Alsworth last year. Jeremiah gave his life to Christ there. He and Janice were also baptized, and they rededicated their marriage.
“My biggest takeaway was finally getting Jesus from here to here,” Jeremiah said, pointing from his head to his heart. Now, he wakes up every morning and goes over John 3:16 in his mind, which provides perspective for the day to follow.
The Van Dykens were already Christians when they traveled to Alaska five weeks later. But they also rededicated their marriage while there.The exciting week in Alaska, the focus on teaching and training for married couples, and the evangelical Christian emphasis distinguish Operation Heal Our Patriots from most other groups serving wounded and injured veterans. Yet, above and beyond even those critical points, it is the aftercare program, which provides long-term follow-up to the couples, that truly sets this Samaritan’s Purse ministry apart.
“Aftercare is the most important part of the program,” said Jim Fisher, a retired Navy chaplain who serves as supervisory chaplain for Operation Heal Our Patriots. “Discipleship takes place over a lifetime. We introduce these folks to Jesus Christ in the summer experience but for the rest of the year, for the rest of their lives, we’re contacting them. We’re reinforcing the principles of their walk with Jesus Christ. We’re affirming their relationships in their marriage. And we continue to contact them, affirm them, encourage them, lift them up, pray for them, remember their anniversaries, remember their special occasions, and just remind them that Jesus Christ loves them. We want them to succeed.”
Aftercare in Action
Both Jim and his wife, Lori, along with Pat Fleming, Operation Heal Our Patriots aftercare manager, attended the retirement ceremonies and the joint after-party in April for the Marcums and Van Dykens. Because they have kept in contact over the past months, the three were welcomed as family to the celebration at the Van Dykens’ home.
There, Jim spoke briefly to everyone gathered before a beautiful Marine-themed fondant cake was cut.“As the Lord says, you have a future. You have a hope. You have the surety that you’re going to be led and directed by God Himself,” he said. “You’re changing. You’re going from aspect of life to another aspect of life. But, like I said in the class over the summer … you are people whom God has a plan for.”
The words brought comfort on a day that was both a relief and a source of anxiety.
“We feel like Operation Heal Our Patriots is part of our family,” Morgan said. “The love is so great.”
The Marcums too feel Operation Heal Our Patriots “has been wonderful” to them, in Janice’s words.
“They follow up with you,” she said. “They care how your marriage is doing. They care how your faith is going. They’ll help you along. They teach you from where you’re at, and it’s not just a bunch of standardized things thrown at you.”
Creating Family Now and for the Future
A former pastor and funeral home director in upstate New York, Pat Fleming is gifted at caring for hurting people. He was hired last year to organize and implement follow-up with Operation Heal Our Patriots couples. He sees his mission as creating a supportive family atmosphere between and among participants and all who serve through the ministry.“It’s all about creating this family,” he said. “[Military couples] are introduced to Christian community when they show up in Port Alsworth and that Christian community continues when they return back home.”
Starting with the Alaska trip, couples make important new relationships with Operation Heal Our Patriots staff and volunteers. A reunion open to all participants occurs each year, and weekend advanced marriage retreats are scheduled to begin this fall in regional locations. Connections also continue throughout the year via a prayer list, phone calls, emails, Facebook, and even personal visits.
“That personal contact with them I think gives us validity, so that when the crisis comes we can speak into their life and help them,” Pat said. “They know that we care. They know that we love them. If something else happens down the road, they know they can count on us.”
A few weeks before his retirement ceremony, Chris had a mini-stroke. When Pat heard from Morgan about it, he called Chris and left a message that same night. They connected by phone the next morning.
“It meant a lot to me,” Chris said. “When we were going to Alaska I never thought it would turn out to be almost like we were in a big family.”
Couples are also finding lifelong friends in each other and cultivating needed support networks.
“They end up learning to minister to each other too; it’s not just us [staff],” Pat said. “That’s part of the discipleship program. It’s training them to help others, not just to receive help themselves. “Although Pat hopes Operation Heal Our Patriots will continue to develop as a prayerful, extended family—one that keeps in regular contact, helps in crisis, and celebrates milestones together—he knows this family should not replace the local church. He wants every interested couple (and their family) to join a nearby congregation.
“Ultimately, our goal is to have them plugged into the local church,” he said. “We’d like to be the distant relative that they see once a year or twice a year.”
The Van Dykens already have a local church body and, with Pat’s help, the Marcums are seeking to find one.
Both couples face post-Marine Corps challenges, but they are keeping a positive, proactive attitude, drawing strength from their relationship with Christ. Jeremiah has a new full-time job as a heavy machine operator in Jacksonville, and Chris is starting his own business. He is also in school, so that one day he can help other Marines suffering from PTSD.
“I can’t wait to see where the Lord is going to lead him,” Morgan said.
Wherever the Marcums and Van Dykens find themselves, they can know they have friends in Operation Heal Our Patriots who are praying for them, cheering them on, and standing ready to listen and help.