NORTH FORSYTH — As a handful of couples sat on the back patio of a Lake Lanier-front home Friday night, sharing stories and laughing until their sides hurt, it appeared as if they were any group of longtime friends.
In reality, it was the first day they had met each other or their host family.
But they did all have one thing in common. The men were all wounded combat veterans. Some were there with their wives and babies. Some brought their girlfriends. They all shared a weekend of bonding and brotherhood they find scarce in day-to-day life.
This is the seventh retreat northeast Forsyth residents Rita and David Scott have held through Freedom Alliance, though the first where the veterans could bring their families.
Through the nonprofit they are able to support veterans while honoring their service in a personal way.
“It’s a small setting, and they get to interact with each other and people who care that they served,” Rita Scott said. “It’s a time for them to cut loose, get some R&R. Connect with each other.”
Scott, who is a board member for Freedom Alliance, pampered the wives with manicures and pedicures Friday morning while the men went fishing on the lake. Then they all went tubing before coming back to the Scott’s house for down time and food.
“They can’t always afford to do all of this, get the boats, get on the lake, travel somewhere to stay,” Scott said. “This allows them to focus on their relationships.”
Four couples came on the weekend-long trip from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina. Three veterans were Marines, and one was a Navy Corpsman, an enlisted medic who serves in the field with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
“Most people honor and encourage military service, but this is a tangible way to show that,” said Pepper Ailor, director of programs for Freedom Alliance.
Ailor entered the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, but couldn’t continue after having an asthma attack three weeks in. He has since worked for Freedom Alliance for the past 10 years as his way of fulfilling his need to serve his country.
“I get to see the impact. You can see them come out of it [after coming home],” Ailor said. “It’s not counseling. It’s just showing people we still care.”
So he meets wounded soldiers and gives them a foundation of support once they return home.
“Most places will throw them a parade, and that’s great, but that’s not always what they want,” Ailor said.
Renee Stoess and her husband, Joe, have been married for 13 years. He was in the military for 15.
She said they reconnected through this vacation the Freedom Alliance gave them, and she bonded with the other women because they have experienced the same feelings as military wives.
“We were married for four months before he went to Iraq. He’s done four or five deployments. We have three kids. This is important for him and for the kids and us,” Stoess said. “[Freedom Alliance] treats us with dignity and grace and respect.”
Ailor met Stoess’ husband, took him on a duck hunt and has been in touch ever since.
“They just moved to Pennsylvania, and we want to celebrate their marriage,” Ailor said. “You don’t usually see military marriages last that long.”
“Good marriages,” Stoess interjected.
“It’s encouraging,” Ailor said.
Veteran Shannon Book attended the retreat at the Scotts’ for the first time last weekend, though he also has known Ailor for some time.
“What Freedom Alliance is, is they put us back in connection with our family. What’s lost when you come home is that camaraderie,” Book said. “They provide that for us.
“Every opportunity I’ve had with them, I’ve never had to be anybody but me. I did 17 years of armed service. I’ve been blown up twice and shot at, and the story goes on and on. I’ve never had anybody take better care of me.
“He picks up my brothers.”
While Rita Scott’s son, Bjorn Povlson, prepared a Lowcountry Boil, the men who had just met found fellow Marines they all knew. Book said he fought with a young man who lost part of his arm in Falluja, Iraq.
“We were in the hospital at the same time … He was not in a good place … neither was I,” Book said. “And [Ailor] took him fishing in Costa Rica. He puts these people together. And now I’m going to be a groomsman in [the soldier’s] wedding in two weeks.”
For more information on Freedom Alliance, visit freedomalliance.org.