Operation Heal Our Patriots

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If you’ve ever wondered where you can strengthen your marriage through your relationship with God, eat meals prepared by a 5-star chef, spend days fly fishing in sparkling turquoise waters, hike to gorgeous waterfalls, relax in the beauty of God’s creation, AND get chased by the biggest, baddest bear in the park, then you need to check out Operation Heal Our Patriots and Samaritan’s Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.

Accessible only by plane and boat, Samaritan’s Lodge sits on the shore of Hardenburg Bay in Lake Clark National Park.  This remote setting allows couples to leave behind the stress of day to day life and truly reconnect in the serenity of the wilderness.  For 15 weeks each summer a new group of 10 couples–wounded veterans and their spouses—arrives for a spiritual retreat and is met with an outpouring of community hospitality.

Throughout the week couples participate in marriage enrichment classes focused on their relationships with each other and their personal relationship with God.  The entire staff spends time praying for the participants and chaplains are available for one-on-one conversations.  Many couples choose to rededicate themselves to their marriage or commit their lives to God through baptism at the end of the week.

Physical activities include hiking, fishing, kayaking, and bear watching.  Couples may also opt to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacular view of Tanalian Mountain over Lake Clark.  And since it’s the “Land of the Midnight Sun” there is plenty of daylight to enjoy that view!

This life, with its shift in relationship roles and demands can suck a relationship dry.  As we assume new roles and responsibilities our individual needs, along with those of the relationship, change. My perception of our marriage and Sean’s are markedly different. Factor in pain, brain injury, and mental health issues and the relationship needs get pushed aside.

I went into this experience worrying about what this enrichment would mean for me, for our relationship…what if we don’t want to hear what we are doing wrong? What if we are afraid to change, or don’t want to? What if we are tired and spent and just want to rest?

Yet, over the past several years I have learned that we get stagnant at home—trapped in our routine and our behaviors—and need the structure of an outside activity to help us feel and act “normal” again. This opportunity afforded us that chance and the support necessary to maintain a fresh attitude and commitment to using healthy tools at home.

Was this a pivotal life changing experience? Yes, without a doubt. I saw transformations not only in our lives, but in the lives of all who attended Lucky Week 7 with us. Did it fix everything? No. But it did open our eyes, ears, and hearts to start down the right path toward breathing new life into our marriage through our relationship with God. We ended our week by rededicating ourselves to our marriage by exchanging vows on the shore of Lake Clark.

In the past year I have spoken several times on “living in recovery” and what it looks like to be genuinely committed to one another. It does not mean disappointment and frustration don’t come, but rather that we choose not to embrace them and let them define our thoughts and actions. We take a deep breath, evaluate the situation, and work through it together.

Since returning home, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on what we learned and practicing making deliberate choices to strengthen our bond to one another. We begin by consciously making choices to use kind and loving words and actions, spend quality time together, and setting aside our own needs to fill the other’s cup.

And now, the story of Bear 856.

In Katmai National Park and Preserve lives Bear 856.  One of the largest and most dominant bears in the park.

Before you are allowed to walk along the paths to the bear viewing platforms you must attend a 20 minute orientation session where you watch an informational video about the park and learn what to do if you encounter a bear. The first rule:   make lots of noise. The group in the video talks excitedly, while clapping their hands and shouting, “Hey, bear!” as they work their way down the path. This alerts the bear that you are in his neighborhood and gives him the opportunity to take an alternate route.

Of course it does.

As our group walked along the path a woman rushed past saying, “Big bear…big bear…” as she swiftly moved behind us. We laughed. Then he was there. 1000 pounds, nearly 6 feet tall, and just 15 feet behind Sean. Several of us started clapping and shouting, “Hey, bear!” as we moved backwards on the path.  Bear 856 was unimpressed with our show of confidence (and apparently hasn’t seen the video in a while) and continued forward. Our guides directed us off the main path and as we moved into the thick brush of the smaller bear paths we were split into two groups. Bear 856 wandered off the main path and between our two groups before making his way toward the main river.  I suspect he was playing a game of “Terrorize the Tourists” on his way to the fishing hole.

The tales of the Great Bear Hunters grew as the week progressed and the stories will live on for years to come.

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Learn more:

Couples rediscover hope in Alaska

Operation Heal Our Patriots

Samaritan’s Purse

Lake Clark National Park

Port Alsworth, Alaska

Katmai National Park and Preserve

Bear 856


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