Samaritan’s Purse continues to meet the needs of Operation Heal Our Patriots participants through a strong aftercare program
It’s easy for wounded U.S. service members and their spouses to feel recharged and renewed as they spend a week in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots. The loving Christian atmosphere, the focus on God, time together as a couple, and plenty of new friends bring relief and comfort.
But after that week, couples return home to many of the same daily struggles they faced before: raising kids, coping with new physical limitations, negotiating layers of military bureaucracy, wrestling with painful memories both waking and sleeping, and figuring out how to pay stacks of bills.
The veteran and caregiver can quickly feel overwhelmed again.
In light of that reality, Operation Heal Our Patriots has developed into far more than a weeklong adventure and marriage retreat in America’s majestic last frontier. The Samaritan’s Purse project has become a dedicated network of staff, volunteers, and supporters who are committed to caring for these injured military personnel, their spouses, and families on an ongoing basis for years to come.
“We make the pledge—semper fidelis, always faithful,” said retired Marine Brigadier General Jim Walker, Operation Heal Our Patriots executive director. “We’re going to stick with these couples forever, not just for a week, not just for a month or for a year. We talk to them on the phone, we send them emails. We have a reunion every year where we invite them all back for a weekend and during that weekend we have extensive marriage enrichment seminars. We’re committed to continuing with the aftercare on into the future to help these couples.”
While all Operation Heal Our Patriots staff members play important roles in follow-up with couples, Patrick Fleming—“Pastor Pat”—took the key role when he filled a new position as aftercare manager in October.
With 20 years experience as a lead pastor in upstate New York, Fleming is tasked with keeping in touch with couples, helping them connect to a local church, providing participants ongoing spiritual care and counsel, offering resources for discipleship, and developing prayer coverage for the ministry. As significant needs arise—a major move, a death in the family, a marital crisis—Fleming will be ready to assist in person or by marshaling others within the Samaritan’s Purse community as necessary.
In the past three months, Fleming has focused on contacting every Operation Heal Our Patriots couple by phone or email—that’s more than 450 individuals spanning the past two years. He said the response from participants has been extremely positive, with many asking for prayer for various circumstances. Now that the initial aftercare contact has been made, he is confident that the ministry’s “extended family” feel will only deepen.
“I’m learning more and more how to care for them,” he said.
And couples in turn are becoming more comfortable with the Operation Heal Our Patriots team.
“They’re learning to call us,” he said. “So we’re developing the two-way relationship. They know they can count on us.”
Fleming remembers one couple that he emailed after several unsuccessful phone call attempts. The wife replied by saying, “I just cannot believe the timing of this, how God planned this out. My grandpa just died two hours ago. Could you pray for grandma and for the rest of the family? They’d been married over 50 some years.”
In months to come, Fleming will continue to call couples on special occasions—particularly wedding anniversaries—and remind them that Samaritan’s Purse remains committed to their marriage, family, and spiritual development. Being in regular contact with couples builds up trust.
In some cases, Fleming and Jim Fisher, a former pastor and retired Navy chaplain who serves as the Operation Heal Our Patriots supervisory chaplain, are even able to visit families in their homes.
“That personal contact with them I think gives us validity, so that when the crisis comes we can talk into their life, speak into their life, and help them. They know that we care,” Fleming said.
A First Visit
On a warm Saturday in mid-November, Pastor Pat and Chaplain Jim made a home visit to the Paterson family in Savannah, Ga.
Army Staff Sergeant Nathan Paterson and his wife, Amanda, are in their mid-20s and were married in December 2009. They have a son, Elliot, 3, and a daughter, Layla, 1. Nathan, a member of the 1st Ranger Battalion, is in the process of medical retirement due to back injuries he sustained while serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
Nathan saw his best friend, 23-year-old Sergeant Tanner Higgins, shot to death in front of him during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2012. Tanner was an outspoken believer whom Nathan looked up to.
“Just seeing the type of person that he was, how strong a Christian that he was, that’s what led me back to wanting to try being more like him, trying to get back to my walk with God,” Nathan said.
The Paterson’s marriage has grown over the past year and a half since that tragic day spurred changes in Nathan’s outlook and attitudes. Time in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots this past June further solidified their commitments to God and each other. Amanda and Nathan renewed their vows there and both were baptized in Lake Clark.
“It was just one of the happiest moments of my life,” Nathan said. “We just wanted to start fresh together and both be on the same page, the same walk with God.”
“I’d say our marriage is very strong now,” Amanda said. “I felt like Operation Heal Our Patriots really pushed us in the right direction.”
As Fleming and Fisher spent a day with them this past fall, they had a chance to listen to the couple’s stories of success and struggle, meet their children and Nathan’s mom, and encourage them to go deeper in their involvement with their church.
“In the midst of what they’re dealing with, they need to continue to apply the principles that we’ve given them,” Fleming said. “They need to be part of the local church and grow in that way.”
The couple appreciated the visit and what it shows about Samaritan’s Purse’s commitment to them.
“It’s good to have someone checking in on you, making sure you’re still trying to go forward in the right way,” Nathan said.
Amanda added: “It’s important when you’re here in your real life, with all your stresses from day to day, [to be] reminded that those people that cared about you up in Alaska still care about you wherever you live in America.”
More to Come
Another opportunity for face-to-face aftercare will occur during the upcoming Operation Heal Our Patriots reunion to be held February 28-March 2 at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove near Asheville, N.C.
It will be a time for participants to reconnect with friends made over the summer as well as to make new friends among the group. Operation Heal Our Patriots staff from Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in Boone, N.C., as well as staff from Alaska will attend, and the weekend will be packed with marriage enrichment activities.
“The reason why I’m excited about the reunion coming up is that it gives us a chance to see everybody all over again, people who are near to us, people who are dear to our heart,” Fisher said. “It’s an opportunity to really encourage and affirm people in their walk with the Lord Jesus.”
Everything in the Operation Heal Our Patriots experience is designed to bless participants and point them to Christ. The aftercare program provides simple encouragement and affirmation to them, along with constant reminders that they are loved and prayed for.
“It’s those kinds of things that keep them motivated, keep their batteries charged, keep their spiritual walk fresh and vital and dependent up on the Lord,” Fisher said. “What Pat does, what I do, it’s a constant reminder that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and that is the Kingdom of God.”
Aftercare opportunities will only expand in coming years. Staff members are working on discipleship materials for participants, as well as informative resources for churches and individuals who would like to reach out to wounded service members and their families.
“One of the most important things that we can do as an aftercare program is link our veteran families with the local church,” Fisher said. “Samaritan’s Purse is not the local church—we are an arm of the church—but we are not the local church. We can’t be at all places at all times and so we depend … upon the partnership with local churches.”
Local congregations provide the best environment for veterans and their spouses to grow as disciples in Christ. And as they grow, they will be able to help others in their community, including similar families dealing with the wounds of war.
As aftercare manager, Fleming said one of his strongest desires is to see current Operation Heal Our Patriots participants maturing enough to disciple new participants as they join the project five, 10 years from now.