PORT ALSWORTH -- Blinded when a suicide bomber's car exploded in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005, Scotty Smiley was in Alaska this week speaking on behalf of a new wilderness lodge for wounded military members and their spouses.
Capt. Smiley, the first blind, active-duty Army officer, stood in uniform on a Port Alsworth dock jutting into Lake Clark and said he was enjoying the sun and fresh air. He talked to reporters about how the bomb blast nearly wrecked his marriage half a dozen years ago. An all-expenses-paid retreat like the one starting this weekend, put on by evangelist Franklin Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse, would go a long way toward helping other couples' relationships and faith survive a spouse's lasting battlefield wounds, Smiley said.
"I was not a happy man. I was depressed. I was angry. I was not a nice person. And one of the first things that I had to do was forgive the man who blew himself up," Smiley said. "Soldiers today need spiritual rebuilding, and to have a place like (this) in Alaska, one of the most beautiful states in America, it gave Franklin the idea that we can still do something that helps soldiers and helps rebuild that connection and those relationships."
Smiley spoke later at a Thursday dedication ceremony that included Graham, Gov. Sean Parnell, the Rev. Jerry Prevo, and the late Gov. Jay Hammond's wife, Bella Hammond, a neighbor about 10 miles away. Then Smiley headed home to his wife in Washington state, where he teaches military science at Gonzaga University. Coming in behind him was a wave of dozens of wounded military members and their spouses, flying in small planes from Anchorage 165 miles to the east to attend the retreat this weekend as its first guests.
The idea is to give the couples -- 84 of them over the course of the summer and more next year -- a one-week break from their normal lives and a chance to strengthen their relationships through faith-based marriage-enrichment courses and exposure to pristine Alaska wilderness. Some of the men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or have burns and shrapnel wounds from explosions, said Jim Walker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and overseer of the project. Others have had limbs amputated, he said. They face the normal stresses of marriage, but also unique burdens inherent to military life and debilitating injuries from war, Walker said.
"All this is to strengthen the couple, because we really believe that the strong marriage is the foundation for that long-term healing that's going to be necessary," Walker said. "Because when you have these wounds, and I saw it in my over 30-year service in the Marine Corps, it's not something that can be dealt with just today. It's a wound and a couple's strength that go on year after year."
Volunteers and staff of Samaritan's Purse, headed by Graham and funded in large part by charitable donations, spent two years renovating a dilapidated lodge and cabins at the lake's edge, purchasing the foreclosed property for $1 million and refurbishing it for about $2 million, Graham said. More than 200 volunteers also worked on the project for two or three years or longer, he said.
There are 10 cabins, a dining hall, sauna and workout room, most decorated with rustic, Gold Rush-era relics, with a few pieces of taxidermy and old game traps. The smell of freshly cut lumber hung in the air Thursday and some windows had stickers on them still. Beneath everything was a brand new septic system and other refurbishments, Graham said.
The lakeside complex of buildings -- including a tackle shop stocked full with new fishing gear, wrapped in plastic and free to use for the couples -- is wheelchair accessible and features boardwalks running throughout. At the lake are a large aluminum landing-craft-style fishing boat with two ramps, named the Jay Hammond, and a DHC-3 Otter floatplane.
In between flights to Katmai National Park to view brown bears and fishing trips on the lake, the couples will attend daily marriage seminars, said Capt. James Fisher, a chaplain with 30-plus years in the Navy. The workshops will focus on finances, communication, biblical sexuality, family systems and worship.
Even with the strong Christian overtones, the retreat is not a "let's capture them for Jesus kind of thing," Fisher said.
"Samaritan's Purse is definitely a Christian, nondenominal organization. I would hope that people coming here would want to form a relationship with Jesus," Fisher said. "However, anybody is welcome here, Hebrew, Muslim, Hindu. We're not going to force Jesus on them. This is not an entrapment exercise."
Graham, the Samaritan's Purse CEO and a man with connections to Alaska going back to 1971, said the lodge was one of the organization's biggest projects in the state. The organization built homes after a fire in Hooper Bay and helped after a flood in Crooked Creek, among other work in Alaska. But the retreat was something particularly personal for Graham, who said he got the idea from Smiley and his son, Edward, an Army ranger also injured by shrapnel from an explosion in Iraq.
"We understand what it's like to get that phone call," Graham said. "(There's) stress that goes on the military marriages, a man or woman comes back and they're missing an arm or a leg."
"There's a lot of work going on with the wounded soldiers And those are good projects, and thank God for those," he said. "But this is working with the couple, helping them and that's what we want to do."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.