Transitioning to civilian life after a career spanning Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom left Colleen and Terry Saffron reeling. PTSD was a constant third party to their marriage; Terry was injured in a 2004 explosion that resulted in brain injuries, a lost fibula and partial amputation of his jaw. Before retirement in 2010, everything they knew was Army. Now they felt they'd left behind not only the job, but their community and identity.
In June 2013, the couple headed to the Alaskan wilderness to participate in a week with Operation Heal Our Patriots (OHOP). The Samaritan's Purse program is for U.S. military service members and veterans injured or wounded since Sept. 11, 2001 and their spouses. It focuses on marriage enrichment, physical renewal and spiritual refreshment along Lake Clark, Alaska.
"It's not that we were in some kind of crisis," Colleen said. "We were just numb. Everything made me mad. Everything was frustrating. Nothing made sense to me."
Hiking through the wilderness one day, Colleen couldn't stop stumbling and sinking. The ground was marshy in places, and she fell behind as the guide hiked ahead. Terry offered to walk ahead of her and show the way. He knew which spots to avoid. Colleen followed his steps, placing her feet in the footprints he left behind. It was a powerful moment for her.
"Despite everything, I could still trust him to lead me when he needs to," she said. "It put him back in that role it felt like had been muddied from the injuries and the care-giving."
For a long time -- year after year of surgery, flirting with depression, transitioning out of the Army -- she didn't know how to contextualize their struggles. It seemed like life would always be this way.
That walk in the woods changed her focus.
"I no longer have that feeling of 'This is my life. This is normal,'" she said. "This is just today. It adjusted our thinking."
And while the couple never contemplated suicide, she knows many who do, and wants to help them get the support they need, too.
Operation Heal Our Patriots is the only program of its kind that works to renew marriages that have suffered the strain of war. Retired Brig. Gen. Jim Walker helped start the program, which is based on the Navy's CREDO program for active duty, after he noticed a correlation between date of injury and date of divorce among Marines.
"The strain on a marriage is tremendous," Walker said. "All your roles have changed. That's just ripe for a failed marriage."
Both injuries and marital issues can be underlying stressors that, untreated, contribute to suicide among veterans. Walker hopes OHOP will help couples work together to remove some of that stress. So far, more than 650 couples from across the US and internationally have participated in the first five seasons of the program.
"All healing isn't medical," Walker said. "I see people so devastated by PTSD they can't look me in the face, and by the end of the week they're smiling."
Rev. Patrick Fleming, OHOP's aftercare manager, responds to suicide threats about three times a week between Veteran's Day and Christmas. A common cycle he sees is veterans feeling isolated and retreating to a man cave. Others get caught in a cycle of guilt: Why did I survive when my buddies died? Why can't I just get over it? Why won't everyone leave me alone? I don't belong. Maybe everyone would be better off without me.
"All of a sudden, you come back and what do you do?" he says. "Unless they can find a purpose beyond the military, they have no hope, and with no hope, that's where you run the risk of suicide."
That's where Operation Heal Our Patriots comes in to give couples a unique bonding experience among others in similar circumstances. Couples get tools to work together against guilt and isolation.
Colleen points to her experience with OHOP as a turnaround for her.
"Granted, your life is going to be different, but it doesn't have to be this way," she said. "It doesn't have to be hopeless."