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Nonprofit hosts wounded soldiers at new Alaska lodge

Posted: July 6, 2012 - 8:37am  |  Updated: July 9, 2012 - 11:45am
Samaritan's Purse
Green Beret Matt Kreiger, front, fishes on Lake Clark with his wife Jamie, back in white and red coat, recently. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization, opened a lodge at Port Alsworth on June 21. It will accommodate wounded soldiers and their spouses through September.

In July 2011, the U.S. Army deployed to Afghanistan an elite team of Special Forces Green Berets based out of Ft. Bragg, N.C.

As a serviceman, Staff Sgt. Matt Kreiger previously spent more than a year in the Middle East while serving as a Military Policeman with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry based out of Ft. Richardson, Alaska. Following a year of intense training, he became a Green Beret. In August of 2011, after only a month into his last deployment as a beret, his team came into contact with the Taliban while on a dismounted patrol. During the firefight, Kreiger was wounded.

A 7.62 round pierced through Kreiger’s temple. The bullet is still lodged in his brain; he is still recovering from the injury.

"As far as treatment goes, shoot, I'm still being treated," he said. "I'm contemplating whether I should have the bullet removed or not."

The active-duty Green Beret resides at Fort Bragg, but he returned to Alaska last week. Samaritan's Purse, a Christian humanitarian organization, chose Kreiger and his wife as one of four initial couples to spend a week at their secluded lodge adjacent to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

The organization has a long history of aid in the state and spent two and a half years renovating an old fishing lodge to accommodate wounded soldiers from all branches of the military. The program, called Operation Heal Our Patriots, will host couples through September at its handicap-accessible retreat.

According to their website, Samaritan's Purse since 1970 has helped meet the needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine.

The lodge is an extension of the mission statement, said Luther Harrison, vice president of the North American Ministries.

"Part of our mission is assisting victims of war, and one way to look at that is (U.S.) soldiers," he said. "They have gone to give their lives for a stranger they've never met and were injured."

The organization operates in 100 countries around the world. Last year, it sent out 20,000 volunteers to many projects, Harrison said.

Operating across the country, and the world, Samaritan's Purse builds churches and rebuilds homes destroyed by natural disasters. Its president, Franklin Graham, son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham, has a soft spot for Alaska, Harrison said.

Soldotna is the organization's base of operations in the state. Since 2006, over 1,000 volunteers from the Lower 48 and Canada worked on 12 major projects and emergency responses in Alaska.

In 2009, a total of 44,000 pounds of groceries was airlifted to 18 villages, helping 1,000 families in need during a harsh winter. And last year, volunteers responded to ice jam flooding in Crooked Creek by rebuilding nine homes.

Samaritan's Lodge features food service employees, fish guides and house keepers. It also includes a chaplain who teaches marriage enrichment classes later in the evening.

Focusing on marriage makes the program unique, as it is the only program in the country focusing on healing the relationships of service members and their spouses.

"The focus is on couples, because we believe having a sound marriage provides the foundation for long-term healing, both physical and spiritual healing," said Jim Walker, executive director of Operation Heal Our Patriots. "There's the spiritual healing, through the beauty of the state.

"To help, we bring them here to the lodge, and it's a change from their daily lives. In many cases we've got a spouse who has been the caregiver for the wounded service member, and so their life has been absorbed for a while taking care of them along with normal stresses."

Kreiger said he believes his marriage wasn't in dire straits, but any relationship benefits from improvement. His wife did struggle to adapt to behavioral changes. Kreiger's cognitive ability has improved, but he still experiences occasional mood swings.

"I was only in the hospital in Bethesda, Maryland for three weeks then I was home trying to do normal everyday things," he said. "At times, I felt like a bear being backed into a corner."

The couple learned things they never knew about each other during the classes, he said.

Motor function is no longer a problem for Kreiger, as he went through months of physical therapy. Other soldiers who suffered debilitating wounds in combat visiting the lodge are supported by handicap amenities.

There are grab rails in the bathrooms of the private lodges, fold down seats in the showers and walkways connected to the main building. There's also a 34-foot boat capable of lowering its bow, which creates a ramp.

"It drops all the way down, like an amphibious watercraft, so that we can even take a wheelchair on it," Walker said.

Visitors spend their week fishing, hiking, sightseeing and enjoying good food.

"We ate like kings for a week," Kreiger said.

The trip was above his expectations, he added.

"I left there feeling refreshed and closer to my wife," he said.

He re-enlisted last year for six more years of service.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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