Supporting Military Couples on the Path of Recovery

December 3, 2013 • United States
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Through Operation Heal Our Patriots, our ministry to wounded and injured service personnel and their spouses, Samaritan’s Purse has provided biblically-based marriage retreats in wilderness Alaska to nearly 230 couples over the past two years. An aftercare program, which includes personal contact, prayer, church referrals, spiritual counsel, and reunion events, continues well beyond the initial trip. This outreach to military couples with a wounded spouse is unique in its scope and its focus on marriage and faith.

A bullet does not have to rip through a person’s body to do permanent damage. A wound does not have to be physical to be debilitating. Retired Army Staff Sergeant Duane Merchant and his wife, Angie, have come to understand these facts all too well.

Help A Military Couple Have A Life-Changing ExperienceA veteran of the first Gulf War, Duane returned to Iraq in October 2006 and left in December 2007. What happened to him on that 15-month deployment left him with grave physical and psychological scars.

Duane was hit by a sniper during an early morning mission on August 2, 2007. The shot came in at an angle, penetrated his body armor at the shoulder, and grazed his skin. Though the vest saved his life, the powerful impact of the bullet was nonetheless incredibly painful and caused serious damage.

“It felt like somebody was taking a sledgehammer and just pounding,” recalled the soldier, who still has the vest and the bullet at his Missouri home. “[The shot] hit my bullet-proof vest and it was like someone was just caving in my back.”

Duane’s rotator cuff was destroyed; muscles and tendons were busted. Despite surgery a year later, chronic pain in his shoulder and back continues to plague him today.

“I can’t throw a football more than 10 or 15 yards,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I can’t do with two teenage boys that a regular dad could do.”

That’s only part of it. The impact from the shot knocked him forward, slamming his head into the vehicle in front of him. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury due to that fall. Again, effects from the wound—slower speech, memory problems, irritability, headaches—linger even now.

Then there is the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he wrestles with on a daily basis. The violence Duane saw in Iraq, at the height of the final U.S. troop surge, will not leave his mind. The deaths of fellow soldiers haunt his waking and his dreaming.

When Duane finally returned home to Angie and his boys, he came back quiet, anxious, sleepless, and in pain. Everyone thanked God he was still alive, but the outgoing, sociable husband and father they knew had changed.

“He wasn’t the old Duane that left on a plane 15 months earlier,” Angie said.

Refreshed by Operation Heal Our Patriots

It’s been six years since he left Iraq, but Duane is still in a moment-by-moment struggle—physically, mentally, and spiritually. And that means Angie is too. The couple needed an opportunity to step away and refocus on Christ and each other.

That’s why their time last summer in Port Alsworth, Alaska, through Operation Heal Our Patriots was so significant.

“It’s a good recharge,” Angie said. “Since he got back from Iraq, we’ve been consumed with the kids and with his healing. Sometimes we put ‘us’ on the back burner. We spend all kinds of time together, but it’s not quality time.”

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Duane and Angie look out from the Dutch door at naturalist Dick Proenneke’s cabin at Upper Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park. The cabin, which Proenneke built using only hand tools, is now the centerpiece of a National Register Historic Site.

During the Operation Heal Our Patriots retreat, Duane and Angie both enjoyed fishing, kayaking, wildlife viewing, and a trip to majestic Upper Twin Lakes to visit the late naturalist Dick Proenneke’s cabin.

Daily marriage enrichment classes on a range of topics—such as communication and family dynamics—as well as chaplain-led devotions from Psalm 23 further helped them focus on God and each other.

They also noted the hospitality of Christian staff and volunteers as another highlight of their stay.

“What a blessing to know the people giving this to you are godly people,” Angie said.

“It means a lot,” Duane remarked while fly-fishing with his wife during the marriage retreat. “It’s more spiritual to get away from electronics, unplug from the world, and spend time with each other.”

Since their experience in Alaska this June, the Merchants have seen growth in their marriage and their faith.

“We’ve relied more on talking to each other rather than at each other,” Duane said, citing one of the principles they learned during the retreat.

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Kayaking becomes a marriage enrichment activity for couples as they learn to paddle together.

Not long before their trip, the Merchants had moved back to Hannibal, Mo., where they lived from 2001-2005. They quickly reconnected with their old church and attend a small group Bible study together. Putting into practice what he learned in Alaska about spiritual gifts, Duane has recently started helping with children’s church on Sunday mornings and teaching a small group for middle-schoolers on Sunday nights.

The Merchants feel strengthened in their faith and confident that Duane is on a path to greater healing. As his PTSD improves little by little, Duane is getting out a bit more this fall. He even plans to go on a mission trip to Haiti this January.

And, in late February 2014, he and Angie plan to attend the Operation Heal Our Patriots reunion at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, near Asheville, N.C.

Committed to Couples for the Long Haul

The Merchants’ story is unique to them, but at the same time it is quite similar to the tales of many other husbands and wives in the Operation Heal Our Patriots program.

As they each battle with the day-to-day stress that war injuries place on a marriage, they are in critical need of refreshment for their relationship. The marriage retreats, and all that Operation Heal Our Patriots offers, often give them that new start, that breath of fresh air—both literally and figuratively.

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Duane and Angie take in the majestic scenery of Lake Clark National Park. They are among nearly 230 couples who have participated in Operation Heal Our Patriots marriage retreats.

A touch of love and grace in Jesus’ name from our staff and volunteers, whether in Alaska or through the aftercare program, can make a tremendous difference.

For those who are believers, it can be the encouragement they need to trust the Lord in all circumstances. As Jesus told His followers: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

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Gourmet chef Jean Claude Mille, who prepares meals for couples during their stay in Alaska, prayed for and presented a Bible to the Merchants on the retreat’s final day.

For others it can be the start of a journey in faith. Seventy-seven participants have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, discovering that He alone is the source of spiritual healing now and for eternity.

No matter their situation, Operation Heal Our Patriots participants can know that Samaritan’s Purse stands ready to support them. Franklin Graham reassured participants of that at the program’s first reunion, held earlier this year.

“We’re going to follow you for the rest of your life,” he said. “So you may just have to get used to us, because we love you. God loves you.”

Please pray for this unique ongoing Christian ministry to couples who have sacrificed so much for our country. Pray for marriages to be strengthened. Pray for all who know the Lord to grow in love for Him. Ask especially for the spiritual growth of those who’ve received Christ as Lord and Savior through the program. Finally, pray for others to trust Him for the first time.