Army couple finds forgiveness and a new life together at Week 10 of Operation Heal Our Patriots.
Robbie Durst hurts in ways difficult for civilians to understand. Doctors can only label him with what’s clinically detectable: herniated discs, sciatica, a misaligned shin fracture, severely damaged knees. And the overarching diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder seems about as precise—not very—as the improvised explosive devices that contributed to his condition.
He’s certainly a hero, but he doesn’t often feel like one. As a sergeant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne, Robbie’s main work tool was an M-4 automatic rifle—he became lethal and efficient with it toward any threat.
“When they train you, they train you with silhouettes, and of course the silhouettes look like people. But never like a child,” he said. “But when they pick up a gun and are ready to do the worst, you don’t process it. And when it’s over you don’t think ‘my body just did this.’”
Now Robbie does think about these things. He still carries with him the heavy burden of having seen many of his friends die and of being the one to end the lives of other humans, even though they were the enemy. The questions you ask after a firefight are only met with more questions.
“There’s a kind of moral injury that happens on the battlefield,” said retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Dave Mikkelson, a chaplain serving at Samaritan Lodge Alaska. “Even though you did everything you were supposed to do, and you were just following orders and protecting your men, you still can’t change the fact that you did terrible things.”
Chaplain Dave, who was deployed to Iraq in 2006, said veterans often keep their combat experiences bottled up because “we assume if you knew what I did, you wouldn’t love me.”
This had been Robbie’s fear for years following his own deployments to Iraq during 2006-2007 and 2008-2009.
“I know I was just doing my job, but I’m still responsible for pulling that trigger and throwing that grenade,” he said. “I can’t forgive myself for something like that. I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself.”
War Changes You
Robbie watched 9/11 unfold from a classroom at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Georgia. Later, as the War on Terror raged on both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Robbie was tired of standing by.
“The day I decided I wanted to do something, I stepped into a recruiter’s office and signed up for the 82nd Airborne because I knew I’d be on the front lines.”
Newly married and with no kids yet, Robbie deployed in 2006 at the age of 22. When he arrived in the city of Samarra, Iraq, he was ready to fight.
And though his patriotism never wavered, his sense of purpose was quickly redirected. Within a couple of months, he lost several friends. During one mission seven fellow soldiers died from a single IED.
“I had to do a lot of stuff I wish I hadn’t have done,” he said. “We were in a horrible place. I came to the conclusion ‘I’m going to die here,’ and that’s the only way you get peace with yourself. Otherwise, if you think about it every day you’ll go crazy.”
Robbie’s wife, Christina, saw a marked difference in his reactions to everyday life after he returned from Iraq.
“If a door slams, I look up and I think ‘Oh. That was just a door,’” she says. “But he goes straight from action to reaction without processing it.”
A slammed door can trigger a wave of anxiety. Similarly a conversation can trigger a wave of shame. Robbie retreats—behind humor, anger, or solitude.
“We were big into church before the Army, but, after, he didn’t feel like he deserved forgiveness,” Christina said. “He didn’t feel like he was worthy.”
New Family, Renewed Faith in God
In Alaska this summer, surrounded by the splendor of lakes and mountains and fellow veterans who’ve also seen the horrors of combat, Robbie finally faced the war wreaking havoc in himself and his marriage. He could talk with the chaplains and he could talk with his brothers-in-arms.
Christina said the couples who attended Week 10 of Operation Heal Our Patriots felt like they were family on the first day. In the impromptu group photo, she says it was more a “pile on” photo.
On Thursday Robbie said he was physically hurting and was also feeling emotionally drained and decided to stay in his cabin.
“I was in there feeling sorry for myself and suddenly my door opens and one of the other guys shows up in my cabin. He’s a double amputee and he’d gotten out of his wheelchair and crawled into our cabin,” Robbie said. “Then I saw that everybody else had come down there to check on me, too. I couldn’t believe it.”
While Robbie and Christina acknowledge that six days at Samaritan Lodge Alaska hasn’t solved all of their problems, the couple sees the week as a new beginning for their lives in Christ and their lives together. They renewed their wedding vows, Robbie rededicated his life to Christ, and both of them were baptized in Lake Clark.
“It’s almost shocking because you get kind of cold to the world because of the way things are,” Robbie said. “I was able to talk to people and open up, and it was wonderful being able to talk freely without feeling like I’m being judged. It was amazing. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really amazing to see that people care. I don’t really have words to express it.”
Please pray for Week 10 couples as they integrate back into everyday life. Pray that they will rely on God each day for strength. Pray also for the coming week’s couples as they arrive at Samaritan Lodge Alaska and begin their week of marriage enrichment.