Injured military personnel and their spouses heard from a powerful lineup of speakers at the annual Operation Heal Our Patriots reunion
About 240 military couples gathered April 1-3 in West Virginia for the 2016 Operation Heal Our Patriots Reunion. The event was open to all husbands and wives who have traveled to Alaska since 2012 for the project’s Bible-based marriage enrichment training.
Called to Moral Courage
On Saturday night, retired Army Lieutenant General William “Jerry” Boykin spoke to the couples. After a distinguished 36-year military career—more than 24 years in Joint Special Operations—Boykin now serves as the Executive Vice President of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.
Boykin commended the veterans for their courage—demonstrated already through brave military service—and emphasized their continuing obligation to their country.
“I really appeal to all of you veterans to get out and show the rest of this country what courage is,” he said. “We need courage. We need leaders with courage. We need leaders in our communities, we need leaders in our families with courage.”
“Today the kind of courage that we need is moral courage. We need people who will stand up against evil,” he continued.
Boykin concluded by calling on Operation Heal Our Patriots couples to parent well, serve their church, and get involved in their communities by running for city council/school board or by coaching youth athletic teams.
Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham followed Boykin’s message with an appeal of his own: “Everyone of you in here can do something.”
“I’ve been going to all 50 states, to the capitals, encouraging people to take a stand and let’s take this country back,” Graham said. “It can happen. It just takes people who are willing to take that stand and say I’m going to get involved and I’m going to fight.
“I love this country and I love you guys. I love you ladies. I love you for your service. But the fight’s not over. There is still a battle out here and it’s for the soul of this nation. And I want men and women to know that they can get involved.”
The Good News: From Sin to Salvation
Graham first addressed the military couples on Friday night after leading prayer rallies and preaching the Gospel in Utah, Nevada, and California from March 29-31 as part of his Decision America tour.
“Our country is in trouble. The world in which we live is in trouble,” he began. “People ask me, ‘Franklin, is there any hope?’ Well, this is a political year and every politician will say they’re the hope.… I can tell you right now, I have zero hope in the Democratic Party. I have zero hope in the Republican Party. The only hope that I have for our country is in God.”
Graham then later read from Daniel 5—the story of the handwriting on the wall and the fall of King Belshazzar—and preached the message of salvation in Jesus Christ by grace through faith. Just as the king was guilty of sin and fell under God’s death sentence, all people are sinners and separated from God, he said.
“A lot of you men have been involved in rescue missions. There’s no greater rescue mission than God sending His Son from heaven to this earth,” Graham said. “When He came, He came for one purpose and that was to take our sins. Jesus Christ took [our] sins to the Cross.
“He took our sins to the grave. On the third day, God raised His Son to life. He’s not dead. He’s alive,” Graham continued. “You don’t pay for your salvation. He paid for it when He shed His blood. He paid the debt in full. All you have to do is receive it by faith.”
“Ladies and gentleman, I want you to know God loves you. If you don’t remember anything else from this weekend, you remember this: God loves you. And God is eager and willing to forgive sin,” he said.
Learning, Commitment, Family
Couples had a packed schedule over the weekend. They heard from relationship experts Michael and Amy Smalley, cofounders of the Smalley Institute, in two large group sessions. With a refreshing mix of both lightheartedness and passionate concern, the Smalleys discussed the roots of marital conflict, its typical progression, and how to deal with difficult feelings in a better, godly way.
“Fight in a way that your relationship wins, not where your selfishness wins,” Amy said.
Romans 14:19, which reads, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (ESV), was a key verse for their message.
“You want to have a good marriage. Don’t let Satan steal that from you. Connect. Love,” Amy said.
Couples got a special treat Saturday afternoon as Greta Van Susteren, host of the interview program, “On the Record,” on the Fox News Channel (FNC), stopped by to visit for a little while. For the past three summers she and her husband John Coale have traveled to Alaska to spend time with our patriot couples, whom she said she now considers friends.
“You’re not going to find any another organization like this one,” she told the audience. “I’ve seen a lot of groups come and go, but every year this one gets bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger. It’s absolutely extraordinary.”
Also on Saturday, eight patriot couples rededicated their marriages to God and each other in a chaplain-led ceremony at a beautiful on-site chapel. Among them were retired Marine Sergeant Taylor Vogel and his wife LeShea of Sneads Ferry, North Carolina. A veteran of three combat tours—one in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and two in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)—Taylor wrestles with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. In Alaska this past summer, he rededicated his life to Christ and was baptized.
Though the couple came home from Alaska on a high, they hit rock bottom in their eight-year marriage not long after. They haven’t given up and things now seem to be slowly going in the right direction—the recommitment ceremony being one more positive step.
“If it wasn’t for the foundation and groundwork we got in Alaska, I’m not sure we would have made it,” Taylor said.
LeShea gave a little history about why the ceremony at the reunion meant a lot to her. The couple was married at a courthouse and had their family ceremony in a vineyard. So, this opportunity seemed to better reflect where they want to be headed.
“I feel like this was the right thing to do, here with Samaritan’s Purse in a chapel with godly people [around us],” she said.
In addition to the solid training and teaching offered at the annual reunions, most couples look forward to them as a time to catch up with friends and bask in the feeling of family Operation Heal Our Patriots has built over the years.
“With Samaritan’s Purse, I know I’m coming to a place of love,” said Sunni Malone, wife of Brandon Malone who served in the Navy as a master-at-arms. “It’s like a rejuvenation—to come back and reconnect and get replenished, knowing you aren’t alone.”
Retired Marine Brigadier General Jim Walker, the executive director of Operation Heal Our Patriots, closed the event by emphasizing the theme of aftercare and the commitment of staff to supporting couples over the long term. He said the adventure continues for each veteran and their spouse in terms of physical healing, relationship building, and spiritual growth.
“We want to give you the tools to make those adventures better, more successful,” he said.
“We’re going to stick with you,” he continued. “You’re part of the Operation Heal Our Patriots family. We’re glad to have you in the family. It’s not goodbye, because we’re not quitting.”
Additional Highlights from the 2016 Reunion
• Three small group sessions addressed financial planning, faith and family, and parenting with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those times were led, respectively, by retired Army Lieutenant General Robert VanAntwerp; our aftercare staff—Reverend Greg Duvall and his wife Shawna and Reverend Pat Fleming and his wife Karen; and Chaplain David and Dr. Suzanne Mikkelson.
• Devotions during the weekend were led by Chaplains Jim Fisher and Dan Stephens. “Let’s make sure when we practice moral courage, we practice it with God in our lives,” said Chaplain Fisher. “Don’t leave here without God, Jesus Christ, being part of your story.”
• Musical worship and encouragement was offered by The Tommy Coomes Band and fast-picking guitarist Dennis Agajanian.
• Participants enjoyed a video tribute to Jean-Claude Mille [1945-2015], the beloved chef of Operation Heal Our Patriots/Samaritan’s Purse, who went to be with the Lord last year. Every couple received a special cookbook featuring his recipes and photographs.
• Eight Canadian military couples joined the U.S. couples this year at the reunion. For the first time in the project’s history, a total of 10 Canadian couples attended Week 16 of the 2015 summer season in Alaska.
• Couples were given handmade quilts and prayer shawls from nine churches in the Appomattox, Virginia, region; thank-you letters from the children of The Bible Chapel in McMurray, Pennsylvania; and quilts made by Carolyn Clayton of Idaho.
• Frank Mosley, a wounded Korean War veteran who turned 84 on April 1, greeted patriot couples as they arrived at the reunion site. He has worked at the hotel for almost six decades.
More on Operation Heal Our Patriots
Samaritan’s Purse started the Operation Heal Our Patriots project in 2012 to strengthen the marriages of military personnel wounded in combat or combat-related activities after September 11, 2001. Couples, typically 10 at a time, are flown to Alaska for a week of marriage enrichment through the program. There, at our wilderness lodge, husbands and wives dig into a series of Bible-based marriage classes, listen to daily devotions, and are offered private spiritual counseling with our retired military chaplains. They also find physical refreshment by participating together in numerous outdoor activities, including kayaking, hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
Since 2012, Samaritan’s Purse has welcomed 526 couples into the project. We praise God that more than 200 individuals have made commitments to Jesus Christ, and 227 couples have publicly rededicated their marriages to the Lord.
Our ministry to these couples does not end in Alaska as we follow up with them over the long term through our aftercare program. Our staff engages them through regular personal contact (phone calls, emails, social media, visits) and encourages their involvement with a local church. Many of the couples also now support each other directly through networking and local gatherings. In addition, Operation Heal Our Patriots reunions and regional training events benefit couples by providing more Christian teaching and tools to enhance their marriage.