From Handshakes to Hugs

August 6, 2014 • United States
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During their week in Alaska, military couples go from friends to family

Simon Gonzalez is the web editor for Samaritan’s Purse. He recently spent a week in Alaska at Operation Heal Our Patriots.

Late Sunday afternoon, two airplanes flew into Port Alsworth. Each was full of military couples arriving for a week of outdoor activities and biblically based marriage enrichment courses through Operation Heal Our Patriots.

The couples looked out as the planes taxied to a halt and saw a sight that gave them chills. Lining the dirt runway were the Samaritan Lodge staff members and virtually the entire population of the small Alaskan town. Most carried American flags. All waved and cheered.

The couples receive a warm welcome when they arrive in Alaska.

The couples receive a warm welcome when they arrive in Alaska.

The couples deplaned and went through an enthusiastic welcoming line. Everyone received hearty handshakes, heartfelt thanks for their service to their country, and sincere wishes for a wonderful week. It was an emotional few minutes that touched the hearts of the guests.

Late Friday morning, the couples returned to the runway and prepared to board the planes that would bear them to Anchorage on the first leg of their journey home. The staff members were there again to bid them farewell. But this time, the handshakes were replaced by hugs. There were more than a few tears.

This pattern is repeated every week throughout the summer. The couples arrive as friends. They depart as family. Often, it’s as brothers and sisters in Christ.

When the couples leave on Friday, hugs have replaced handshakes.

When the couples leave on Friday, hugs have replaced handshakes.

I was privileged to experience this transition firsthand when I spent a week in Alaska covering the fifth week of the Operation Heal Our Patriots summer season.

My itinerary took me through Chicago. A major hub plus few flights to Anchorage surely meant there would be Operation Heal Our Patriots couples on the flight. I began to look around for people who “looked military.”

One such guy and his wife sat next to me on the plane. I asked where they were headed. “Port something,” he said. I quickly introduced myself to John and Cecilia Valdez and told them I was going to the same place.

Over the course of the flight, we became friends. John is from Texas, my home before moving to North Carolina, so we chatted about that great state. Cecilia is from Mexico and her country was playing Holland in a World Cup match that day, so we talked about the great sport of soccer. I told them they would be amazed at the beauty of Alaska and were in for a great time.

Becoming a Family

I got to know them much better during the week. I learned about how they met when John took his grandmother to see family in Mexico City, about their long-distance relationship during their courtship and even after they were married because of John’s deployments. They told me about John’s battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and about Cecilia’s faith and prayers for her husband.

John and Cecilia rededicated their marriage at the end of the week.

John and Cecilia rededicated their marriage at the end of the week.

On Friday, I watched with tears in my eyes as they rededicated their marriage and were both baptized. Even a tough soldier like John might have been a little emotional when we hugged goodbye a few hours later.

That little story doesn’t even begin to explain what happens during the week. The transition from friends to family really takes place as the couples interact with the chaplains, fishing guides, cooks, housekeepers, maintenance personnel, other staff, and volunteers who are truly dedicated to being the hands and feet of Jesus.

It happens because the staff begins to pray for the next group of couples even before they arrive, because the chaplains are available to talk any hour of the day or night, because the housekeepers pray while they are cleaning the cabins, and because everyone radiates the love of God.

Operation Heal Our Patriots staff and volunteers pray for the couples at a ceremony to close their time in Alaska.

Operation Heal Our Patriots staff and volunteers pray for the couples at a ceremony to close their time in Alaska.

“Everybody wants to be doing what they are doing,” said Patty Jelsma, who rededicated her marriage with her husband, Shane. “It’s not just a job. I am blown away by it.”

Tiffany Jones was one of the many people hugging and crying on the runway Friday.

“This has been incredible,” she said. “You guys just show so much love. You have no idea how much that touches my heart. The friendships we’ve made and the people we’ve met … I’ll never forget it.”

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