Embarking from Seattle, Washington, the Michael W. Smith & Friends Alaska Cruise welcomed on board Freedom Alliance and special guests: four families forever affected by their commitment to military service.
This journey was more than an American Heroes Vacation—it was a spiritual reawakening.
The day of the launch, Freedom Alliance team members met each family to help get them settled in their cabins, go over activities and excursions, and provide a $1,000 room credit to use for outings, refreshments, and in the spa. Our guests were also given access to a private lounge offering snacks and espresso.
After dinner (at which the Freedom Alliance table achieved the reputation for being the most jolly in the dining room), we all attended the first of the nightly concerts.
Michael W. Smith is a contemporary Christian musician who performs at and hosts these inspirational cruises with other artists in the Christian music industry, such as Nichole Nordeman and Phillips, Craig, and Dean. The evening entertainment also included comedian John Branyan and inspirational speakers, pastor Dr. David Jeremiah and Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton.
Songwriter Nichole Nordeman had met one of the Freedom Alliance attendees, Corporal Jeremy. She mentioned him that night and dedicated the performance of her song “Legacy” to Jeremy and the other troops.
The corporal was in a fire fight on the Pakistan border when he took shrapnel to the face from a rocket. He lost his right eye, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today medically retired, with a 100-percent disability rating, Jeremy serves as an Army Wounded Warrior advocate, helping other soldiers retire and reenter the civilian community.
He is married to Brianne, a hairdresser, and they have two endearing five-year-old twins, Hayden and Haylee, who enjoyed swimming on the ship and the all-you-can-eat ice cream.
The next day at sea, the families met us in the lounge to talk about the trip, but they ended up hanging out together until lunch, getting to hear one another’s stories.
Sergeant Daniel was in the Army for 10 years and deployed twice. While on patrol in Afghanistan, Dan went to search a suspicious character when he stepped on a pressure plate that exploded, injuring him and his specialist. Dan took the brunt of the damage, losing his right leg below the knee, shredding the left leg, and enduring injuries to his arm and brain.
He has been married to Gennette for 13 years and they have two daughters, Kaylee and Gracie, ages 10 and 12 respectively. After years of treatment at Brooks Army Medical Center in Texas, Dan is now retired and the family has moved to Cape Coral, Florida.
This couple repeatedly gushed about the cruise. Gennette said that “since Dan’s injury, this is by far the greatest thing we’ve been given. You’ve blessed our entire family and treated us like royalty.”
On the third day, the ship passed through Alaska’s Tracy Arm, a beautiful fjord, featuring a breathtaking glacier and local wildlife, such as bears and mountain goats.
We got to know Sergeant First Class Sene, an American Samoan, who served with the Army for 28 years. He saw combat during Desert Storm and decades later deployed again to Iraq. It was there that he suffered life-threatening injuries from an explosion that killed his translator.
He endured damage to his stomach and lower extremities, injuries to his right arm, head, and hearing. Highly decorated for bravery and sacrifice, Sene’s remarkable recovery has been labeled “Samoa’s Miracle.”
He currently lives in Washington State with his wife, Rosalind, and two teenaged daughters, Charley and Chazity.
The ship docked in Juneau on the fourth day, and Sene’s daughters left with a Freedom Alliance team member to take a zip line through the rainforest with Alaska Canopy Tours.
Jeremy and his family stayed in the port, wandering around and feasting on crab legs, while Dan’s family panned for gold and took a whale-watching tour.
Sergeant Aaron accompanied his family for whale watching, too. This Army infantryman served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the second deployment, his wife, Lynn, had given birth to their son 10 weeks early in Denver, Colorado.
The Red Cross gave Aaron the message that his wife and newborn son were dead, when in actuality, both had survived the traumatic birth, but young Talon was on a respirator.
Aaron came home for two weeks to be with his family, who were fortunately holding steady, and then traveled back to Afghanistan. Another two weeks later, on a nighttime mission to watch for bombs being set up on roadsides, he stepped on a mine. He lost his right arm and leg, with permanent harm to the left leg as well.
He was flown stateside to Brooks Army Medical Center, and Lynn found herself with a baby and a husband fighting for survival. And yet, remarkably, both pulled through.
Aaron spent two years at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, which is a military rehabilitation facility for amputees. Today, he and Lynn live an hour outside of Seattle, and their son Talon is now almost four years old.
The sergeant traded his prosthetics for a wheelchair on this cruise, but his spirits were soaring.
“When I was injured,” he shared, “I lost my faith. I didn’t see the light. There was nothing but darkness. But this trip has been the first step to my faith being restored.”
Sitka turned out to be the favorite port on the fifth day. All passengers took lifeboats into the port, and transportation to the Coast Guard station was donated by Sitka Tours. Once there, we toured the USCGC Maple, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender, with its commanding officer. The kids really appreciated being able to climb a buoy that was on the ship.
We ate lunch with the Coast Guardsmen and toured the helicopter. The kids tested the controls, tried out the rescue swimmer costume, and played in the rescue basket.
Saying goodbye to the Coast Guard, we headed to the Fortress of the Bear wildlife preserve, which takes in injured bears, as well as bears that have gotten too comfortable with humanity to live safely near civilization. The animals will never be allowed to be released into the wild, but they carry out their days happily at the Fortress.
The owner generously provided admission to the preserve and a meet-and-greet with two of the bears, Toby and Baloo, who communicate by sign language with their keepers. We were even given the extraordinary opportunity to feed the bears!
Back at the port, a shop owner gave each family a hand-blown glass ornament, and a local artist offered to give away his lovely paintings of Sitka landscapes. The locals here were really keen and constantly thanked our service members for their sacrifice.
That evening, we swam together and attended an old-fashioned hymn-sing.
Alaska Canopy Tours donated a one-mile guided rainforest hike in Ketchikan for Day 6, on which we learned about native plants and animal signs. We walked to a salmon hatchery and saw a bird raptor sanctuary, too.
That afternoon, before the final concert, the families met with Michael W. Smith and his wife, Debbie, getting the chance to let them know how much the cruise meant.
On the last day, the families slept in and hung out together until the ship docked in Victoria, British Columbia. There we ate dinner at an oceanside restaurant and reminisced about the past several days.
Sene’s wife, Rosie, told us how favored their family felt to be recognized. “Being on this cruise has been a special spiritual blessing.”
This family has really been through it, having spent five years at Walter Reed National Military Hospital trying to save what was left of Sene’s body. Although his injury isn’t very visible, he is still in a lot of pain, and it’s hard for him to get around, but Rosie says that God healed him.
This vacation seemed to speak to all 15 of our guests, injured veterans and family members, on a spiritual level. There was lots of encouragement through music, devotions, and even comedy, and so many caring people, who wanted our service members to know that they are appreciated.
To all the families, it seemed most important that they were honored by our organization and the Americans who give so that we can do what we do.
Dan said, “We could not think of a better group of people with whom to experience everything that we did…. I hope I can bless other families as Freedom Alliance has with my family and many others.”
His wife concurred: “We are in such a better place now than we were even before Dan’s injury,” Genette said, “thanks to … people like you.”