A Texas veteran and his wife rededicate their marriage and follow Christ in baptism during their week with Operation Heal Our Patriots in Alaska
“You need to go see the doctor or we’re done.”
Those were Tanya Montealvo’s words to her husband, Juan, shortly after he returned from his third combat deployment to Iraq in May 2010. Something was not right with her husband of 11 years and she knew he needed help.Help Bring Healing to Wounded PatriotsHis speech was almost unintelligible. Things just weren’t connecting. It was difficult for him to make a simple order at a fast-food restaurant. If someone asked him, “What day is today?” no answer came.
He couldn’t deactivate the security system when he entered their home. The alarm would begin to sound and he just stood there.
It all started with a nasty daisy-chain bomb in Mosul, Iraq, on December 14, 2004, when Juan was serving as a staff sergeant in the Army. He went on to survive eight more major explosives attacks during his first two deployments and two more lob bomb attacks in his third (and final) tour.
There were other minor incidents too numerous to remember. A human brain can only handle so much trauma.
He hadn’t sought help, because he didn’t want to be that soldier—the one who let his team down. Besides, his deployments, all to Iraq, had occurred in nearly rapid-fire succession. October 2004 to October 2005. October 2006 to December 2007. May 2009 to May 2010.Thanks to Tanya’s urgings, Juan did begin to receive help for his physical injuries later in 2010. There was occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy, plus other doctor’s appointments and counseling. In 2012 he spent weeks at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) in Bethesda, Maryland, with his family. That trip marked the first time Juan and Tanya discussed his brain injuries with their children (now ages 7 and 10).
“My wife became the caregiver,” Juan said. “That opened the door to a whole ‘nother world that we weren’t prepared for.”
Long-term medical issues are a strain on any marriage. In addition to caring for the kids, Tanya had to become a fighter to secure the help her husband needed.
“War came home,” she said. She told Juan: “You fought the war there. I’m fighting the war here.”
Spiritual Healing Begins
All the therapies and interventions—including a smart phone—have helped Juan with many day-to-day issues. It was a long, difficult road, and still is. But, for military couples struggling with a war injury, recovery and healing are about far more than the practical and physical.
One of the hardest parts of the whole process was when a doctor at Fort Bliss (El Paso, Texas), where he was stationed, told him he couldn’t be a soldier anymore. He had hoped to serve 20 years in the military, but instead his career ended in medical retirement last July. He had given the U.S. Army 11-plus years.
Spiritually, he felt scattered, like the pieces of an unfinished puzzle. After his combat experiences in Iraq and all that happened afterward, he felt God didn’t love him anymore. Tanya too was struggling inside.Just before Juan’s retirement, Tanya said she finally surrendered her fears and frustration about the whole situation to God. Slowly, things began to change. In September 2013, their pastor reached out to Juan and invited him to a couples small group. Tanya was excited that Juan agreed and began to attend with her.
In January 2014, the same pastor invited them out to eat with him. He shared the Gospel and they both received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
“When I accepted Christ,” Juan said, “it was like my head just opened up and this good stuff kept pouring in.”
In March, Tanya stumbled on a link to the website for Operation Heal Our Patriots, the Samaritan’s Purse project designed to offer God’s healing love to wounded military and their spouses. Biblically-based marriage enrichment seemed like just what the couple needed to help them work through years of relational baggage.
She applied and on a Tuesday heard back that they had been accepted for a week of physical and spiritual refreshment in Alaska.
“God, You answered my prayer,” was her response. “I felt God was trying to tell me this marriage is going to work.”
Time for a Reset
“Our souls, our spirits, our minds needed this to reset,” Tanya said last week from Samaritan Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.
The 30-something couple, who celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this year, soaked in all the marriage enrichment experiences Operation Heal Our Patriots had to offer. They went kayaking, hiking, bear watching, and fishing.
“There’s a lot of firsts here, so that’s awesome,” Juan said after enjoying their first picnic by a waterfall.
They paid close attention to the daily marriage courses and devotions led by retired military chaplains. They sought further counsel to address specific concerns they had. The importance of more open communication became a theme.
“I think that the kayaking experience was symbolic. Sometimes we’re in sync together, left and right,” Tanya said. “[But] when our life tends to spin out of control I do what I did in kayaking—I threw my hands up and started screaming. Then I’ll ask him, ‘What do we do?’ And then he’ll just do it on his own and not communicate. I looked back and said, ‘You need to let me know, left, right, left, right.’”
By the end of their week in Alaska, Juan and Tanya had endeared themselves to many. Samaritan’s Purse staff, volunteers, town residents, and other participants were rooting for them on August 1, when they joined five other couples in a marriage rededication ceremony.Tanya wore a wreath of willow and fireweed, handmade with others the night before. The couple exchanged homemade rings of three cords, symbolic of Ecclesiastes 4:12, a passage all the couples studied earlier in the morning during the week’s final marriage class.
They repeated vows asking for forgiveness for past wrongs and promising to offer grace in the future. They pledged to build their family on a firm foundation of Jesus Christ and His Word.
A little while after the ceremony, Juan and Tanya were the second of four couples to be baptized, each spouse individually, beneath the waters of Lake Clark.
Before their baptism, the couple addressed the gathered crowd. Juan spoke of baptism as a next step for them in Christlikeness. They were obeying His command to publicly and symbolically proclaim the salvation He’d provided in January.
Tanya followed him and said: “Baptism, to me, is just a new beginning. And I’m ready to start a new beginning with my husband, walking along with Jesus Christ.”
For Juan and Tanya, this has been a blessed year. Their time in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots marks another turning point, though many challenges remain ahead.
They recently moved from Fort Bliss to Houston, where they are closer to both of their families. Juan plans to continue his studies toward a bachelor’s degree in history. They are looking for a new church.
Whatever they face, as they continue to journey forward, they can rest in the assurance of Jesus’s words, which Chaplain Dan Stephens referenced before their baptism: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).