Embracing Joy Again Together

Posted by admin on

Austin and Cass Dickinson were baptized together in Lake Clark near Samaritan Lodge Alaska.
Marine Sergeant Austin Dickinson and his wife, Cass, an Air Force Senior Airman, stood just out of reach of the thundering waterfall where they had hiked—from the boat to the remote pebbled shore of Alaska’s Lake Clark and up the trail lined with devil’s club to the cove where the water gushed from a high cliff. They stood smiling at each other, feeling the refreshing mist from the falls and enjoying the soothing sound of falling water. They later recalled that waterfall hike, drawing connections to Austin’s growing skepticism about whether God loved him, which had kept him at the edges of joy for a long time. That very night, the Monday night of the waterfall hike, Austin decided to step in. In conversations with Operation Heal Our Patriots chaplains, he received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Cass, who had become a believer years before, agreed to join him in being baptized for the first time. Austin said that before coming to Samaritan Lodge Alaska, he was cynical about Christianity. “We would go to church and I was just tired of people who knew nothing about me telling me how to live my life,” Austin said. “But up here, there’s peace and love. I’ve not experienced this much calm since before the war.” Calm After the War Austin first deployed on naval vessels and then to Kuwait, but in 2006 and 2008 he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is where he experienced the greatest loss and grief but wouldn’t allow himself to acknowledge or to feel or to talk about what he’d seen. “I wasn’t even infantry. I was a mechanic working on CH53 Super Stallion helicopters,” he said. “I could keep helicopters working in all kinds of conditions. Well, for four months in Afghanistan, I did that for evacuations. They were getting torn up. So they pulled four aircraft and a handful of mechanics and pilots and sent us out there—to run gear, supplies, and to pick up the wounded and KIA Marines.” Nearly every day he saw the ravages of the insurgency as he served as a flight mechanic on convoys evacuating Marines who had been wounded or killed, often by mortar fire or IEDs. On his final deployment, a bus he was in was hit by mortar rounds, causing a traumatic brain injury. Coming home was the hardest part. This is when his Post Traumatic Stress symptoms and TBI became most life changing. “Survivors guilt is a real thing,” Cass said. "Austin wondered what made him so special that he got to come home when so many other Marines had not" Austin said he would do crazy things to get the wartime adrenaline back and to stop thinking. “You start doing stupid things, like taking your street bike up to 200 miles an hour on the freeway at two o'clock in the morning,” he said. “Just trying to get the feeling back.” He said he also had thoughts of taking his own life so all the images and emotional pain would just go away. “You wake up in the morning and you're just like, ‘Why am I even here? Why bother fighting anymore?’” In Alaska, though, the couple experienced eternal hope for their lives and their family. During Biblically based marriage enrichment classes led by the chaplains, the Dickinsons decided their family motto is “Everything Comes Full Circle.” “If we hadn’t experienced the things we’ve experienced, then we wouldn’t be here learning what we’re learning about God,” Cass said. “So God is using all of those experiences for good. Because everything comes full circle.” On Thursday night in Alaska, the Dickinsons burned a list of the burdens they wanted to leave behind. On Friday they recommitted their marriage to God and were both baptized in the glacier-fed waters of Lake Clark. Austin and Cass are already planning to attend church with their neighbors when they return home to South Carolina. “They invited us a while ago,” Austin said, and, to Cass’s astonishment, added, “I think we need to go see what it’s all about.”