After the past couple of years of doctor’s appointments, heartache and strain on their marriage, a military couple finds joy and peace through Operation Heal Our Patriots
Emily Mather didn’t even know much about Samaritan’s Purse except for the shoebox collection for Operation Christmas Child at her church. She also didn’t know what to expect when she and her husband, Michael, were chosen to travel to Alaska for a weeklong retreat in Port Alsworth.GiveBut from little expectations came great things. The Ohio couple agreed that the experience surpassed anything they could have imagined.
Hiking and fishing topped the list of weekly activities. Michael, medically retired after serving as a sergeant in the Army, insisted the staff lied to him because every time he caught something they told him, “Oh, that’s like the biggest fish ever.”
Seeing the smile on her husband’s face as he sat back with his fishing pole meant the world to Emily.
“I don’t see that very often,” she said.
When they had first arrived at the Samaritan’s Purse wilderness lodge, the Mathers were warmly greeted by friendly staff that also prepared incredible food and took care of them with servant hearts all week long.
“I didn’t know all the good things Samaritan’s Purse does,” Emily said. “Now that we know, I would definitely love to come and volunteer.”
Such happiness was a refreshing change in their relationship. Weeks before the trip, the burden that was heavy upon both of them threatened to deteriorate what was left of their joy and marriage.
God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect when it came to their trip to Alaska.
Emily applied via her cell phone while sitting in the cafeteria at the Veteran’s Administration hospital during one of Michael’s appointments. The very next day they returned to the hospital emergency room thinking Michael had experienced a seizure. When they reached the parking lot, Michael received a phone call telling him they had been accepted to the Operation Heal Our Patriots’ program.
They were shocked and excited. The news came just at the right time. Not only were they dealing with Michael’s health issues caused by his combat injuries but also his mother had just passed away, adding to their turmoil.
“It was just something that for the two of us, because we were so emotionally exhausted, [we] needed that time to be able to recoup our relationship,” Emily said.
The Mathers have been married for eight years and have been dealing with Michael’s injuries since 2008. They recognized that they needed help, and the marriage resiliency component of Operation Heal Our Patriots fit the bill. The classes focused on learning about personality types and working with each other rather than against one another, plus communication as a key factor in improving a relationship.
Being around other couples helped them to see they are not alone in going through their difficulties.
“We’ve all been in the same shoes,” Michael said. “We’ve either been blown up, shot, or shot at. I come here, and everybody is injured in one way, shape or form. So the connection is almost instant.”
Like many veterans, not all of Michael’s injuries can be seen.
“Whenever I meet somebody, I tell them my wounds aren’t really visible,” he said.
The scars hidden beneath his beard only begin to describe the physical and emotional injuries Michael has sustained.
While on deployment in Iraq in 2008, he was assigned to a mission to teach the national police in setting up check points. One day, the unit received intel regarding the location of a target. They were directed to a section of Baghdad, and blocked the area so no vehicles could enter.
Then Michael was hit.
For a brief moment everything went dark. When he came to, some instinct told him to put pressure on his neck. His truck commander asked what happened, and he said, “I think I got shot.” He turned his head and removed his hand to see strings of blood spurt with every heartbeat.
A medic began working on his neck using a bandage that instantly cauterizes anything it touches. He was not given any pain medication lest his heart rate drop too drastically. He was moved to a local medical facility and remembers arguing that he wanted to walk in the hospital in order to keep his dignity.
Perhaps the need to maintain his dignity is why Michael, who received a Purple Heart, typically chooses to be alone.
“I’d rather be reclusive than out with people,” he said.
In Alaska, he didn’t have a choice. The marriage courses, recreational activities, and meals put him in the company of others. But it was company he enjoyed. Michael said the connection was instant, because “you look at them and go, ‘you’ve been in the same thing. You’ve been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.’”
Some of the invisible scars began to heal. Looking out at the mountains during the week, Michael said “I’m not angry anymore. I used to be angry, but how can you be angry when there are places that look like this?”
But the highlight came at the end of the week. The two had received the tools they needed to move forward together with new commitment and strength. Healing for a strained marriage was evident when Emily and Michael, who were married at Elvis Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas in 2005, renewed their vows on the beach of Lake Clark.
Michael said it was the wedding ceremony he always wanted to give his wife. Sharing the event with their new friends meant a lot to the Mathers, who consider these military couples part of their own family.
“It just means more to me now because I guess we understand more now what it means to be married and share a life together,” said Emily, who had a bouquet and headdress of wild flowers made by the other wives. “It’s so exciting to know that many people care enough to take care of a wounded soldier and his spouse. There’s not even words for the appreciation.”