Military service can challenge both service people and their families.
When it comes to Special Forces, these soldiers have some of the highest divorce rates in the military and some of the highest injury and suicide rates. For Brant and Tanya Ireland, an injury almost derailed their love story until a charity that works to keep military families together stepped in.
The pair first met in 2002. Just a year later, he joined the U.S. Army's Special Forces. Brant deployed to Afghanistan more than half a dozen times, while Tanya, a pediatric trauma nurse, cared for their two young daughters. In 2013, Brant was on an overnight raid in northeastern Afghanistan when he went over a steep drop-off while carrying over 150 pounds of gear.
Brant was medically evacuated from the accident site. The injury was followed by 20 surgeries and hundreds of hours of rehabilitation, with Tanya at his side.
"Frustration and bitterness set in with me, because I saw somebody that I love starting to fail," Tanya said. "I think mentally, spiritually, and that kind of infiltrated us as a couple."
Brant spent two years working to salvage his leg, but it became impossible to continue on.
"The two years of limb salvage ... I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, not just for what I went through, but what our daughters went through," he said. "It became more and more apparent that in order to get back to where I wanted to be and where I wanted us to be as a family, that amputation became a no-brainer."
Brant's leg was surgically amputated in June 2015. Even as he healed, it seemed like his marriage never would. Brant said it was as if the two were living "entirely different lives," even as they shared a home.
"I vowed to love him, but I can't say I really liked him much at that time," Tanya recalled. "I mean, it was tough."
Just in the nick of time, the pair learned about Operation Healing Forces, a charity started by Gary Merkel. The charity serves injured Special Forces veterans and their spouses. Merkel has sent more than 1,100 special operators and their partners on retreats designed to mend relationships damaged by the call of duty. Donors loan Merkel their vacation homes, and retreat leads help partners come back to each other.
"We have employed retreat leads. Most of them are retired Rangers that have been through the same thing as the couples and the soldiers," Merkel said. "It's just very rewarding for us."
In 2016, the Irelands spent a week on Merkel's yacht with four other couples. The trip to the British Virgin Islands "refreshed" the couple's souls and their marriage, Tanya said.
"It connected us with other individuals, and that's something special," she said. "When you can just sit in a room quietly and not have to rehash everything, and still have that sensation of 'We know what you went through?'"
"It was an opportunity where we just really felt so appreciated," Brant said. "You look at these great Americans who are living in absolute, you know, the American dream - they don't have to do any of that. But we felt, wow, 'They are really appreciative of the sacrifice we've made.'"
Bolstered by that experience, the Irelands have continued to rebuild. Brant has regained his confidence through adaptive sports, winning more than two dozen gold medals at competitions like the Warrior and Invictus Games.
"I remember having that competitive spirit, and I remember that being a big part of who I was, and that's the first part of myself that I recognized in a long time," Brant said.
Tanya, who has transitioned to a career in real estate, said that it's like the couple has had a "role reversal."
"I kind of call him 'Mr. Mom,'" she said. "He runs with the girls and practices and (takes them to) travel ball and it's pretty special."
Now, the couple is approaching their 20th anniversary with a renewed commitment to each other and the hopes that their story can be an inspiration for other families that might be struggling.
"We're just so proud to have been part of just a small piece of history," Tanya said. "We realize it's a really hard lifestyle, but it's probably one of the most rewarding."
"Through American history, there's always been men and women who served and sacrificed selflessly," said Brant. "Just to be in that same community or group is an honor."
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