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Love is all you need: Marine veteran finds solace with wife and adaptive sports

Michael Spivey, seen here with his wife Kris Spivey on Nov. 19, 2019, began surfing and snowboarding after suffering from a traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan. Now, he has competed on the global stage as a member of the U.S. Paralympian team. (Lauren J. Mapp/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Today’s modern love stories often start off the same way: People log onto a dating app, swipe left or right, eventually meet “the one” and fall in love.

In fact, a 2017 survey from sociologists at Stanford University found that the majority of romantic pairings — 39% of heterosexual couples and 60% of same sex couples — began online, surpassing other means of coupling up.

Military veteran Michael Spivey and his wife Kris fall into that group, having met online through eHarmony. But their story is anything but typical.

When they met four years ago, Kris had only been on the dating site for two weeks. Michael was staying in Colorado to snowboard for the winter, but when he returned to San Diego for an appointment at Veterans Affairs, Kris picked him up from the airport for their first date. By their second date, he was hooked.

“The second day we went bowling, and as soon as she walked in I knew it was over,” he said.

Kris thought Michael was adorable and she was ready to launch into a long-distance relationship with him.

As their relationship grew, she learned how to best support him. Michael has post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury and a partially amputated arm from an explosion in Afghanistan years earlier.

Michael enlisted in the U.S. Marines in October 2005 after finding it difficult to go to college and work simultaneously. He initially joined because of the educational benefits, but once in, he liked working in foreign communities and his position as a combat engineer.

“A lot of it is the brotherhood and the camaraderie,” Michael said. “Before I went to Iraq, I spent a year and a half (deployed on a ship) … We’d pull into different countries over in Southeast Asia and build schools and bridges and do other humanitarian-type stuff.”

He served in the military for seven years, during which he deployed to Iraq in 2007, then to Afghanistan in 2010.

The time he spent in Afghanistan was during the most dangerous year in the conflict there with the greatest number of military deaths, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which tracks fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a combat engineer, he’d walk in front of the squad while holding a metal detector in search of improvised explosive devices and landmines. Leading up to his accident in late 2010, he was finding four or five every day. Out of the 10 engineers attached to the Kilo Company he trained with, Michael said one person died, three were in explosions and suffered from non-fatal injuries, and six became amputees.

“It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ we were going to get blown up, it was a question of when,” Michael said.

For Michael, the ‘when’ came in December. He sustained shrapnel wounds to his back and legs and a traumatic brain injury. A month later, he had his left arm amputated below the elbow.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is when someone experiences heightened feelings of anxiety and emotional discomfort or stress after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

The National Center for PTSD estimates that among veterans from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, between 11% and 20% have PTSD in any given year.

Recreation and sports are becoming increasingly common methods of therapy.

Near Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Warrior Adventure Quest organizes laser tag, hockey, and paintball sessions as part of the resilience training for Army units. A Montana-based nonprofit — Xsports4vets — organizes extreme sports outings for military veterans, like rockclimbing, skydiving and rafting.

Co-founder and Army veteran Anton Johnson said Xsports4vets was started after another co-founder’s family member took his life after returning from Iraq. She wanted to build a community for veterans returning home to link them to services and prevent social isolation.

“It really helps to fill out that missing piece of reconnecting with other veterans,” Johnson said. “We find that a lot of veterans, after done they’re done serving, kind of get up and spread to the wind, so they lose some of that personal contact with their fellow battle buddies.”

Having a safe, sober outlet for excess adrenaline is another benefit of extreme sports for veterans, he said.

“Those things keep us safe while we’re in combat, but when we get home, our bodies don’t know what to do with the rushes that come with the adrenaline dumps or cortisol,” Johnson said. “We find that veterans can seek those rushes out in risky or unsafe behaviors, so we wanted to find an alternative that got veterans that same experience, but in a safe, sober environment.”

Kristen Walter, a clinical research psychologist at Naval Health Research Center, published a surf therapy study in 2019. Among the group of 70 military patients, primarily from the Marines and Navy, participants found that surfing improved symptoms for those living with depression and PTSD.

“There’s several ways I think the recreation therapy can complement other forms of treatment,” Walter said. “It often uses a strength-based approach, rather than deficit-based. I think that focusing on strength can be a very nice way to engage people in care and also allow them to get experiential treatment.”

While Michael was recuperating at Naval Medical Center San Diego (also known as Balboa Hospital), he was among more than 100 people from his San Diego boot camp battalion who had been injured overseas. People recovering at Balboa were looking for ways to get outdoors, so they started hiking, golfing and surfing together.

“Balboa Hospital didn’t know what to do,” Kris Spivey said. “There were hundreds of guys coming back missing limbs and they didn’t know what to do. The recreational therapy department was formed thanks to these guys.”

Recreation therapy eventually led Michael to the ski slopes, where he has become a role model for other adaptive snowboarders. In 2018, he competed in the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in South Korea and he hopes to compete again in the 2022 games in Beijing, China.

While he enjoys the adrenaline rush of snowboarding competitions, he prefers to keep his surfing as a recreational hobby to relax.

“Whenever I go out to surf, I am there to clear my head and meditate — to find my center again,” Michael said.

Early in their relationship, Kris and Michael went on a camping road trip along the coast of California to Big Sur. The experience helped Kris to learn what her role as a caregiver would be in their relationship.

“I got to see the things that make him frustrated about not having two hands and the things that he needs help with,” she said. “Once we got home, I had a very clear understanding of when to give him space, when to just kind of let him vent and when to offer help because it was very hard at first for him to ask for help.”

There are about 5.5 million military caregivers, 1.1 million of whom care for those who served after 9/11, according to a 2014 survey from RAND Corporation. The study also found that post-9/11 military caregivers tend to be younger and caring for people living with mental health conditions and substance abuse.

Caring for someone with invisible wounds like PTSD or a traumatic brain injury can be challenging for caregivers because they might not know how the injury can impact various aspects of their lives, said Erin Brzezinski, PsychArmor clinical manager.

PsychArmor supports military caregivers by providing them with free online classes and information, resources and tips.

“Oftentimes it can be very difficult, especially if you’ve known this person before they had PTSD or TBI or another invisible wound,” Brzezinski said. “They’re still the same person to you afterwards, but now their behaviors are a little changed, they’re a little different.”

In January, the Spiveys celebrated their second wedding anniversary, which coincides with the anniversaries of when Michael graduated from boot camp and had his arm amputated. They picked the day because “it was a day of new beginnings and the start of new lives,” Kris said.

As he completes his education and prepares for the 2022 Paralympian Winter Games in Beijing, Michael looks forward to a future where he can work full time. He wants to transition into caring for Kris as she completes her degree in physical therapy.

“I’m going to work full time and support her while she focuses on all of her schooling to where she can take a full class load and get her dream taken care of,” he said. “It’s my turn to take care of (her).”


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.