Operation Heal Our Patriots helps a military couple experience Christ's healing love
Sergeant Ken Lind woke up in Kirkuk, Iraq, ready and determined to fulfill his obligations as a medic for the 20th Special Forces Group of the Army National Guard. There was nothing unusual in that. When you do what these “quiet professionals” do—generally unnoticed, by design, and usually without applause—duty is king.
June 16, 2011, was to be a routine day anyway—at least as routine as any since Ken arrived in Iraq in December 2010. He would travel with three other soldiers in one of a four-vehicle convoy going on a supply mission from Kirkuk to Bayji, further south on the edge of the Sunni Triangle. Ken’s only concern was that the night before, he had a vivid dream in which his convoy was attacked and chaos ensued. He’d never had a nightmare like that previously and even this special forces veteran was a little “freaked out.”
The soldiers experienced delay after delay as they prepared to depart that morning. Things just didn’t go as planned. Scrapping the mission became a real possibility. So, Ken thought he’d lighten the mood as he half-jokingly, half-seriously, mentioned his dream.
What happened next was unusual. Ken’s driver looked him in the eye and asked him to pray for their group of four. The mood became solemn as Ken voiced his plea for protection to Almighty God. Then, as duty dictated, they all set off.
“Everyone always knows there is a possibility that you might never come back, but you just have to put your fears aside and do your job,” Ken would later write in an email reflecting on his experience.
A Near-Death Experience
Temperatures in Kirkuk normally soar above 100 degrees every day in June with only a remote chance of rain. The semi-arid scenery is monotonous— scrub brush, rock, and sand followed by scrub brush, rock, and sand. And then there’s the gruesome matter of the 4- to 5-foot craters along the sides of the road, the legacy of previous improvised explosive devices set off by insurgents eager to take down “one more infidel,” in Ken’s words.
While the convoy rolled ahead, God impressed Ken to keep on praying, to pray without ceasing. That’s exactly what he was doing at about 10:30 a.m. when his vehicle triggered an IED only a half hour into their expected 3-hour journey.
“When we were hit, I had my eyes closed and I was praying hard,” he said.
The blast violently threw him forward in his harness and the strap cut into his neck. Dazed, he didn’t immediately realize what had happened until the gunner pointed out the impact site right behind Ken’s head. A projectile had rocked their armored vehicle, hurtling through eight layers of ballistic glass and cracking the ninth and final layer. Ken was less than a half-inch from certain death.
“Nothing but the power of God stopped that IED from vaporizing every one of us,” said Ken, a little choked up as he remembered that moment. “I thank Him every day.”
Amazingly, Ken was the only one injured in the blast. Had the IED exploded 30 seconds or a minute later, it would have ripped to shreds a completely unarmored vehicle behind him.
In the aftermath of the attack, the convoy’s other vehicles quickly created a defensive perimeter to assess damage and check for any injuries. With a vehicle that couldn’t operate, they were “pretty much dead in the water,” according to Ken, so it was a tense situation. No one knew if more attacks were coming, but they did know they had to try to get to a safer location.
They pulled the damaged vehicle to an Iraqi military checkpoint about a mile down the road and dug their heels in. They waited a few hours for the reaction force to arrive with more than a dozen vehicles and air support. With the additional help, everyone returned safely to base in Kirkuk.
Back at their home in Locust Fork, Ala., Ken’s wife Jessica had a sense something might be wrong. As she drank her morning coffee, she’d been startled by a thud from the bedroom. The painting their daughter had given them right before Ken left—a soldier with an angel above him and the words “You’re not alone”— had fallen. She took it as a sign and prayed the rest of the morning for her husband’s safety.
As soon as she heard Ken’s voice on the phone later that day, she knew the Lord had spared him. Through her tears, she gave thanks.
“He shouldn’t have come back,” Jessica said. “God has a plan.”
Toughing It Out
Though Ken was alive, he was not well. He’d suffered a concussion and his neck was severely injured from the force of the attack. His right arm and shoulder were in continuous pain and three fingers remained numb on his right hand. He couldn’t lie down to sleep.
Nonetheless, Ken did not want to seek treatment in Germany because he said he “couldn’t leave his guys.” With the help of pain medications and some treatments from a senior medic, he toughed out the final months of his deployment as scheduled.
Those months, from June 2011 until Ken’s return to Alabama in January 2012, were not easy for Jessica either.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You don’t have a lot of emotions because you keep yourself busy. The Army tells you to stay busy. You don’t focus on the news. You don’t focus on what’s going on over there. If they call home, you don’t tell them what’s going on at home. Everything’s happy, happy, happy. But that’s not the case.”
The Linds were disappointed by what they felt was a lack of family and church support for Jessica while Ken was gone. And not only did Ken’s health situation add stress, but Jessica was also still grieving the loss of a grandson a few years earlier.
When the couple finally reunited with hugs and kisses at the Huntsville Airport, all Jessica could do was cry tears of relief and joy. The Linds’ daughter and two grandchildren also met Ken and brought signs that read, “Welcome home, Poppy. We love you.”
It was a great day. But it would be one of the few good moments in the months ahead.
Battles on the Home Front
Ken was in bad shape when he came home to Jessica. Pain still radiated from his neck down his arm, his fingers were still numb, and he couldn’t lie down so he had to sleep in a recliner. The only relief he had was to put his chin down on his chest.
He chose not to get proper treatment during deployment, and when he sought out more thorough care during his brief demobilization time in El Paso, Texas, he was told to seek relief back home in Alabama. That advice did not work out well because his pain did not take a break while his line-of-duty injury paperwork took months to process.
Bureaucracy caused financial problems as well. Ken did not receive his first incapacitation paycheck until June 2012. In the meantime, they nearly lost their home, and would have, Ken said, had Jessica not kept a tight rein on their money.
“She could squeeze a tear from Lincoln’s eye,” he said as a compliment.
Added to these physical and financial strains were emotional burdens that nearly proved too much to bear. It’s not easy to become a caregiver for a man who had always been a pillar of strength or to watch him struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. It’s also not easy to fight for his case to be handled adequately by the Army National Guard.
“I blamed him because he came home broken,” Jessica said. “He wasn’t the same anymore.”
All these factors took a heavy toll on their marriage. When their Army caseworker told Jessica about the Operation Heal Our Patriots marriage retreat in Alaska, she seized the opportunity as possibly a last chance for their relationship.
“If we don’t go (to Alaska), I don’t know if we’ll still be together,” she said to Ken.
Operation Heal Our Patriots is a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse focused on providing marriage enrichment as well as physical and spiritual refreshment to wounded military personnel and their spouses. As part of the program, couples are flown to Port Alsworth, Alaska, along the shores of Lake Clark, for a week-long retreat at Samaritan Lodge. The Linds arrived in September among the last 10 couples to enjoy the lodge’s inaugural season.
Ken and Jessica arrived ready to be rejuvenated. They soaked in all they could from the marriage resiliency classes, daily devotions, and adventure activities. During the week, they stood out as the couple that held hands the most.
“Every moment we’ve been here, we’ve been in awe,” Ken said while in Alaska.
“I’ve seen a difference [in our relationship] since we’ve been here,” Jessica added.
The couple especially enjoying seeing Alaskan brown bears up close at Katmai National Park. When their floatplane touched down at Brooks Camp, they may have silently asked themselves who was on top of the food chain as one bear swam in the water to the left of them, one walked at the far edge of Naknek Beach to the right of them, and one lumbered straight toward the dock in front of them.
Jessica fell out of her seat and busily started taking photos through the plane’s windows. Her granddaughter is an animal lover so she wanted as many photos as possible.
Stepping onto the beach, there was no longer anything between them and the bears. They had to rely on the park rangers and their guides for safety. They saw several more bears that day, but they were never in any real danger—as long as they kept their distance.
As the Linds understand better than most, distance can be a good thing, like the half-inch of glass that God used to save Ken’s life. It can also be a negative thing if you’re moving away from your spouse or God.
“I felt God didn’t care about us any more,” Jessica said. “We’ve been through so much. This week really opened up my eyes to see God is still there. It was us that backed up, not Him.”
For Ken, too, the Operation Heal Our Patriots retreat brought a renewed closeness to Jessica and the Lord. Jesus’ comforting promise found in Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (ESV), became a reality.
Hope Sees Them Through
In recent months, the Linds have continued to fight for Ken’s health and their marriage. Right now it’s a 50-50 split between good days and bad days.
Six weeks before going to Alaska last summer, Ken had surgery on his neck—fusing three vertebrae with two titanium plates—which stopped the numbness in his fingers and reduced some of his other pain. However, promising results at first have not led to the long-term success and relief everyone hoped for. He is undergoing more testing and may travel to see military specialists in Bethesda, Maryland. Ken also forgets things sometimes and still struggles with the various effects of PTSD. Jessica admits that the most frustrating thing to her is that sometimes she just doesn’t know how to help.
Ken realizes many of the burdens created by his war injury fall on his wife. “Jessica has been my advocate when no one else has. Without her, I’d have been lost.”
The couple was encouraged recently after attending an Operation Heal Our Patriots Reunion near Asheville, N.C., in February. Each of the 44 couples at the event visited Samaritan Lodge Alaska during one of 12 weeks last summer.
During the weekend retreat, patriot couples savored a precious opportunity to again focus on their relationship with each other and take marriage enrichment classes on topics such as communication, forgiveness, and finances. From the sessions—each led by a current or former member of the military—they gained plenty of practical tools to help them in their marriages.
Jessica said the workshop on forgiveness made a big impact on her. “It was like they were speaking to us,” she said. “Sometimes you think you’ve forgiven when you haven’t.”
Ken even used the getaway to get down on one knee and ask her to marry him again, complete with a new diamond ring.
Life after Ken’s injury is not easy, but there is hope. The Linds know the hope they need is found in Christ’s healing love, and they thank Samaritan’s Purse for holding out that truth to them.
“We trust in God to take care of us,” Ken said. “Sometimes we don’t do the things we’re supposed to do, but we know He’ll see us through.”