After spending a week going through the Samaritan’s Purse program Operation Heal Our Patriots, a military couple stands strong in Christ
For Specialist Laura Hodges Rossi, ARNG, and her husband, Steven, time spent in Alaska through Operation Heal Our Patriots is the closest thing they’ve had to a honeymoon.
“It’s raised her spirits 300 percent,” said Steven, an Army National Guard veteran.
Laura contracted a mysterious and debilitating autoimmune disorder while serving in Afghanistan in 2011. The couple married in February 2012, and a steady stream of distressing medical news has marked the couple’s first months of matrimony.
Operation Heal Our Patriots is a Samaritan’s Purse ministry designed to extend God’s healing love to wounded and injured U.S. military personnel and their spouses. The program flies couples to Port Alsworth, on the shores of Lake Clark, to attend a retreat filled with fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching, as well as marriage resiliency classes, daily devotions, and a Friday worship service.
To qualify for Operation Heal Our Patriots, at least one spouse must have been wounded or injured in combat or combat-related activities since 9/11. Couples are followed up throughout the year and years to come by our staff. To learn more, click here.
Laura quickly noticed the attention to detail and thoughtful planning that characterize the program, giving hurting troops a comfortable and relaxing experience. She was especially encouraged by the entire staff’s smiling hospitality.
“I’ve seen in all of them a servant’s heart,” Laura said. “They are trying to meet your needs before you even ask.”
Her health also benefited as she enjoyed several nights of deep sleep, a luxury that eludes her back home. Normally, pain prevents her from getting more than three to four hours of sleep a night.
“I know people are praying,” Laura said. “I know that this place was built in love by many volunteers. Built in love, and it remains in love.”
“It’s really nice to have a place where we can recharge the batteries,” said Steven, who accomplished the impressive feat of climbing Tanalian Mountain while at the retreat. “It’s such a hard life for us right now. It’s such a blessing that we found this program. We’ve been able to forget her disease and all the details associated with it, [which] can really drag a person down after a year and a half.”
Starting in Kandahar, Then from Bad to Worse
Laura and Steven were deployed in the same Nevada Guard unit to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 2011. Because he had to accompany certain equipment, Steven actually arrived at the airbase in April, about six weeks after Laura did. They had already been dating for almost a year—back in Reno—so it was not a complete shock when Steven pulled out a diamond ring and proposed during their first week together overseas.
It was soon after that Laura’s health started to fail. Despite having no prior history of allergies or asthma, she developed sinus trouble in May. Medication did not help much and the problems spread from her head to her lungs. She started having asthma attacks on a near daily basis. Toward the very end of her time in Afghanistan, she also developed chronic fatigue syndrome.
When their deployment ended on New Year’s Day 2012, Steven went back to his home in Reno, but Laura, due to her medical condition, was stationed in Ft. Lewis in Washington State. On February 25, while Laura was on a short leave, the two were married in Nevada. However, because her Warrior Transition Battalion housing could not accommodate married couples, Steven had to settle for shuttling frequently between Ft. Lewis and Reno over the next several months. When his contract with the Nevada Guard ended in March, he did not renew.
Laura’s condition was still not improving. In fact, she began to be plagued by serious, seemingly random pain at night as she fell asleep, which has led to insomnia. Then in September, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. After a brief nap, Laura woke up with a severe asthma attack that nearly proved fatal. After normal interventions failed, she was rushed to the emergency room, barely breathing, with dangerously low oxygen levels. When an epinephrine shot did not help, doctors decided to intubate her.
Steven, in Reno at the time, received an urgent call from the Red Cross telling him Laura had a medical emergency, was not expected to live, and the organization would pay for his air ticket to Washington. He made it to his bride’s side as quickly as he could.
After a week in the hospital, Laura emerged alive but terribly weakened. She had developed constant pain in her legs, which would render her immobile for about three months. During this time, Steven moved to Washington to care for her full-time. They were able to secure housing together very close to the base.
Slowly, Laura began using a wheelchair and then a walker. By the time she participated in Operation Heal Our Patriots this June, she was walking with the aid of a cane.
Every Day a Struggle
Soon, she may be able to walk on her own. That’s the good news. The bad news is that doctors remain stumped by her condition. Laura survives on a daily dose of prescribed steroids, which, for now, treat the symptoms of the unknown autoimmune disease that ails her.
“When I was over there [in Afghanistan], I contracted something that is just attacking my system,” Laura said. “I have eight doctors, seven specialists and one primary, and they don’t know what it is. None of them have an idea. Without steroids, everything in me will close up and I’ll die.”
Though physicians cannot identify the root cause of Laura’s illness, they have discovered more about how it manifests. Laura has been diagnosed with hypereosinophilic syndrome, or HES, a rare blood disorder affecting a certain type of white blood cell. Most people have fewer than 500 of these eosinophils per microliter in their blood; Laura’s levels can shoot up to 22,000 if untreated. Over time, HES may cause organ dysfunction, most commonly in the skin, lungs, heart, and nervous system. In addition, Laura’s red blood cells are now evidencing malignancy, and her oncologist told her that she would have to undergo a bone marrow biopsy to monitor those cells each year for the rest of her life.
Every day is a painful struggle for the couple. Laura, a strong, healthy soldier little more than two years ago, has spent much of the past year confined to a recliner. Frequent mood swings and significant weight gain accompany her long-term steroid use. Then there are frequent military appointments, in which she is not guaranteed an empathetic ear; she can feel overwhelmed by having to repeatedly justify her illness. To top it off, the numerous medical appointments and tests seem to yield only more negative information.
“It’s hard sitting in the apartment all day and waiting for the doctors to give us bad news,” Steven said.
Faith, Hope, and Love Carry On
What keeps the couple going through this miserable situation is their faith—a faith they did not share at the start of their relationship.
When Steven began pursuing Laura three years ago, he was not a Christian.
“I thought it was all garbage,” he said.
At first, Laura simply didn’t know where things were headed. She says she felt God telling her to wait and see. She didn’t issue any spiritual ultimatums to Steven, yet neither did she hide her faith in Christ.
Steven visited Laura’s church a few times, and he began to see Christians living out their faith, beyond mere cultural traditions. Steven soon decided he had to either find another girlfriend or determine if Christianity was true. And so he began listening to a man-on-the-street evangelism/apologetics program on the radio.
What he heard blasted through the naturalistic, postmodern relativism he’d always accepted. He first recognized there must be a Creator—to whom he is accountable—and then grasped the amazing hope offered in the Gospel.
“I went from death to life,” he recounted. “I never knew why it was called the Good News. Once I realized that Christ has made our payment and that on Judgment Day my wicked life gets transferred to Him and His goodness is transferred to me, I can’t think of any better news.”
“Everything changed,” he continued. “Every part of our lives went to the Lord.”
Now, together they are determined to live life in light of eternity, and it’s this perspective that encourages them to persevere through physical, financial, and spiritual struggles. They said their goal is to hear that “Well done, good and faithful servant” from Jesus’ lips.
Asked how their faith helps them from day to day, Steven answered based on Ephesians 5.
“She (Laura) is to be a representative of the church, and I am to be a representative of Christ. How can I be a follower of Christ and give up on my church?”
“Christ has one church, and He’s coming for it,” he said. “It’s been 2,000 years, and He’s still coming for His church.
“The most important thing for this life is not our happiness anymore but our holiness. And when things are hard, we’re not that happy. But, if we can be holy, that’s so much more valuable, because that’s what Christ is looking for. That’s the model of our marriage.”
“And then times of refreshing will come,” Laura quickly added.
After a reflective pause, she softly told Steven, “That was beautiful.”
Moments later, they kissed, gently and briefly—an overflow of true love forged in adversity and grounded in Christ.