Photo: The Samaritan Lodge Alaska retreat center, the location for the new Operation Heal Our Patriots program (photos courtesy Samaritan's Purse)
A new program, Operation Heal Our Patriots, built and operated by Dr. Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, is now offering a place of healing for America’s wounded heroes at Samaritan Lodge Alaska. Designed with married couples in mind, the retreat center is set to open for the first time on June 24, 2012.
“A few people have been at war, but most of America has not been at war,” said General Jim Walker, senior advisor and Deputy Director of International Projects at Samaritan’s Purse. “Unless someone in their family or a close neighbor is in the military, or served in the military, to many people in America, these wars are just something they see and read about in the newspaper, or hear about on the six-o’clock news.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense (USA Today, December 2011), approximately 30,000 military personnel marriages ended in divorce last year. Another startling DOD statistic states that over 48,000 service members have been wounded or injured as a result of combat action in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the global war on terror since the 911 attacks. Reports further indicate that coping with a wound or injury can be incredibly difficult for military service members and the stress of this new reality can be detrimental to a marriage.
This strategic ministry initiative is working to reverse the staggering divorce rates of wounded U.S. military members. Operation Heal Our Patriots, a wilderness retreat in Alaska, is designed to strengthen and support the marriages of America’s own victims of war by providing physical and spiritual restoration to service members and their spouses (both retired and those on active duty). It is open to current and former military service members of any or no faith.
The retreat offers an opportunity for couples to reconnect with each other as well as to connect with other military couples who are facing similar struggles. It allows couples to address their specific needs, whether physical or emotional. At the same time, it puts them in an intimate group setting, which helps them to realize that they are not alone.
“I know there is a need for this, because of my 30-plus years in the Marine Corps. The need is there because of the strain that young marriages face today,” said General Walker, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than 30 years, prior to his retirement in 2009. “Marriage is difficult in any setting. But, if you take military couples – who are young, married, they have relatively low income, they take multiple deployments, where they are absent and then you add on top of that a severe injury and this is your definition for undue strain.”
In addition the all the possible strains on a marriage, he added that a person’s hopes, dreams and their world is turned upside down when they are wounded or experience an injury.
“For the couples that go up there, we think we can make a real difference in their lives, not just for a week in the sense of vacation, but for the long-term.” Walker said. “By strengthening the marriage, we can make a difference in their long-term healing.”
Programs and opportunities are offered by other organizations that take wounded veterans fishing or hunting, for example, but none of them focus on building up the marriage. In many cases, as a couple, one has been injured. However, there are two people who are affected by that and they have to work together.
“We are the only organization that is focusing on enriching the marriage of these young patriots,” Walker said. “We also hope to bring about increased awareness of this need.”
Common wounds and injuries can range from loss of a limb and brain injuries to more invisible injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Wounded and injured veterans and active military personnel are selected for the program through a military and private network referral process. Once referred, eligible participants then complete an application.
Throughout the week-long camp experience, couples will participate in marriage enrichment classes, devotions and recreational activities ranging from bear watching and hiking to fishing and kayaking.
In addition to Walker, another individual on staff who has a key part in the program by leading devotions, teaching marriage resiliency workshops, counseling and leading worship is Captain James Fisher, who is acting as the program’s chaplain. Additionally, Mark and Sandy Lang are serving as the program manager and facilities manager. There will also be a diverse team of individuals in place on-site, including staff and volunteers.
“Samaritan’s Purse wants to affirm and encourage military marriages. We saw the need to provide tools for resiliency, which is providing inner, personal and spiritual strength and flexibility, in order to maintain longevity in marriages,” said Captain James Fisher, who also served as a chaplain in the U.S. Military for over 30 years. (He has served posts with the Air Force Reserve, the Coast Guard, the Marines and the Navy.)
He said another goal for the program is to help these young warriors and their spouses to engage God. In Alaska, it’s a gorgeous setting. For most, they haven’t been there before and they probably won’t experience anything like this again.
“When you place yourself in that setting of splendor and you see the glory of God’s creation, in all its wonder, with the mountains, water, sky and all of its beauty, it forces an individual to say, ‘Wow, God truly is the God of creation, God truly is a God of design.’ And they ask the question, ‘Where do I fit into that?’“
Finally, the program serves as a token of appreciation and grateful thanks for the service that these men and women, their spouses and families have given for our nation.
“What I am most excited about is the fact that my wife, Lori, and I are going to be firsthand involved in being a spiritual guide for people as they begin a new direction in their lives,” Fisher said.
The summer is booked with 86 couples, who have already registered to attend this year from late June to mid-September. Next year, the program will begin in late May and enroll about 155 couples. Guests will typically arrive on Sunday and stay through Friday night or Saturday morning. The cost is covered by Samaritan’s Purse and is free to participants. It is made possible through donations from those who partner with Samaritan’s Purse.
Couples stay in their own personal cabins, with amenities that include a queen-size bed, a full bath with provided toiletries, hot and cold running water, heat, and daily housekeeping service. All cabins and main buildings are within short distance of each other, and are interconnected by boardwalks to ensure that all lodge facilities are fully accessible.
Samaritan Lodge Alaska sits on five acres of lakefront property on the protected shores of Hardenburg Bay, in the southwestern portion of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. One of the deepest lakes in Alaska, Lake Clark spans 42 miles, surrounded by the Alaskan wild. It is located 150 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The Samaritan Lodge Alaska retreat center has more than 25 buildings, including cabins, a fitness facility, and a full-service community dining hall and a lunch café. Meals are prepared each day by an on-site chef.
There will be a grand opening ceremony held on June 21. About 200 people are expected to attend. The governor of Alaska, Sean Parnell, will preside. In addition to Dr. Franklin Graham, Walker and Fisher, other honored guests will include local and regional officials, including the head of the National Park Service for Alaska, among others. For more information, or to donate to Operation Heal Our Patriots, visit www.samaritanspurse.org or http://www.samaritanspurse.org/patriots/.
Ginny McCabe is an author, feature and entertainment writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://www.gmwriteon.com/.
Publication date: May 27, 2012