Chris and Katie Chatwin hovered on cloud nine during the two-day drive from Port St. Joe to Indiana last week.

 

 

Chris and Katie Chatwin hovered on cloud nine during the two-day drive from Port St. Joe to Indiana last week.

They were lifted through an alignment that would shame stars and planets alike.

The Chatwins, who technically didn’t head this way as Chatwins, arrived to an event they hoped would be transformational and left with an indelible memory that Kodak would struggle to capture.

As they stated last week after arriving in Indiana, the location to celebrate future wedding anniversaries was pretty much set, the month and week etched in symbolic stone.

As of last week they are members of the Forgotten Coast Warrior Weekend alumni, and, in their hearts, honorary citizens of a community that wrapped its arms around them for four days and shaped something special into something exceptional.

“There was something about this trip,” Katie said. “The community’s love of country, the community’s love of veterans.

“The bonds we made with other veterans and the citizens of Port St. Joe was just so cool.”

As one of the warriors, Katie his caregiver of six years, Chris’ emotions were unlocked after he’d made sure they were hidden for years, the aftermath of six deployments to battle zones and the resulting physical, mental and emotional toll it had taken.

At one time the strapping Marine who weighed over 190 pounds was nearly 60 pounds lighter, his new battles with PTSD, depression and taking its toll.

Then came the Heroes Parade on Thursday afternoon of Warrior Weekend, the motorcade through Port St. Joe from the WindMark Beach to the Centennial Building.

The roadways crowded with locals and visitors, waving flags and hands, saluting and just welcoming the honored guests to their community.

“I haven’t cried more than I did during those four days at the Forgotten Coast Warrior Weekend in years,” Chris said. “They taught me to cry again.”

Clear the throat lump before reading on.

The first indelible moment, and the baseline from which the weekend would be measured, came the night before, at the opening night dinner with just the veteran warriors and caregivers.

Chris noted quite a bit of nervousness, separation.

“That first night we were all at separate tables and there was not a lot of conversation,” Chris said. “By the end of the trip all the tables were pushed together and we were all conversating over them.

“The guy who didn’t say a thing that first night, he was the loudest there by the end of the trip.”

The balm these events provide, Chris said, has been invaluable, a pathway toward recovery by coming to understand he was not alone in his struggles.

“For the first time I met people going through what I was going through,” Chris said of veterans events such as FCWW. “I was not alone.”

But those first two events, out in the West as the couple resides in Bend, OR, were far different than FCWW, Katie and Chris both emphasized.

Other trips, Katie said, can be vastly over-scheduled; the sentiment and goal are on target, the planning is overboard.

Since its inception, the FCWW has aspired to provide a laid-back atmosphere to hit the pause button; the warriors have options, the most prominent being relax, and nothing is forced.

“Once we got there Wednesday evening we could have just relaxed and done nothing the rest of the weekend,” Chris said. “That is a recipe for success, I think.

“(Organizers) have learned what is the best formula, you give guys space.”

And within that space, is much time for interaction, whether the morning breakfasts or evening bonfires, veteran warriors and their caregivers could talk, on a steady even plane.

Katie noted that Chris was approached and able to counsel a younger vet, a boost to Chris and his wellbeing on the road to recovery.

But, as Katie noted, within all that space, she and Chris nonetheless took advantage of most every recreational opportunity offered.

They kayaked on St. Joseph Bay, courtesy of Happy Ours Kayak & Bike Outpost, and Chris, who had not fished for more than two decades, caught one while beach fishing one late afternoon.

And, of course, some may have heard by now, Chris and Katie got married.

The dominos were tripped, shall we say, by a bit of fibbery Chris has performed previously and Katie felt he needed to be called on.

She said Chris had come to introduce her to folks as his “wife.”

But, Katie was forced to point out, that was not entirely true.

The couple, who are parents to two children aged 3 and younger, had tried on the spur of the moment to marry once and had planned a wedding for the Oregon coast; both times life and Chris’ health intervened.

They had thought of even heading to Reno, NV for a quickie marriage as they traveled from Oregon to Indiana to stay with Katie’s mom during a health scare.

The weather on the West Coast, wild all winter, scotched that idea.

There was a lining of silver, or really unreal timing, however.

Katie said if they had not needed to make the trip to Indiana, she and Chris would have been unlikely to be able to travel from Oregon for the FCWW when organizing committee member Brenda Garth called to invite them.

“It was really fortunate, the timing was kind of amazing,” Katie said. “Everything was really unbelievable from start to finish.

“It was really all unreal, like it was something out of a book.”

But, back to Chris’ fib: this time Katie called him on it and that was overhead by Jim Garth, Brenda’s husband.

Soon the calls to the Clerk of Courts office were made; the wedding license was nothing more than some brief questions and just under $100.

“We walked into the Clerk’s office and everybody was so fantastic,” Katie said. “They were all so nice. The hospitality and genuine kindness was so genuine of what we found in Port St. Joe.

“It was amazing. Everything on Reid Ave. was overwhelming with love. The small little connections we made (in those few hours) were unreal.”

Their lone reservation, however, and it was significant: they did want to make their wedding the centerpoint of the FCWW.

“I didn’t want to take away from the weekend, but we talked about it and we decided if it was doable, let’s do it. It was meant to be,” Chris said.

Well, as we recounted last week, the folks in Port St. Joe more than ensured it was doable, with Brenda Garth at one point simply telling Chris and Katie to be quiet and get out of the way.

Dresses were found for wedding and reception, a wedding cake, gifts, flowers, “rice” (birdseed), sparklers and champagne donated.

Former city manager and retired Navy officer Lee Vincent performed the ceremony and Ann Comforter and Jim Garth provided music.

The ring for Chris was another chapter in this fairy tale.

On Thursday, after the Honor Banquet at the Centennial Building, some warriors and caregivers took advantage of tickets to see that night’s “Thursdays at the Theatre” concert.

There, among other people, Chris met Marie Stephens.

The next day he went shopping for a ring, knowing he’d be quite fine with finding one at the local convenience store.

He walked into this “small jewelry store” which was Emerald Coast Jewelry on Reid Ave..

And, lo and behold, there was store operator Marie Stephens.

“She helped me pick out a ring and when I went up to pay for it she just gave it to me,” Chris said and, again, his emotions took over.

“I just lost it,” he said. “It was so overwhelming.”

Those small-world moments kept arriving.

“The people at the Piggly Wiggly knew we were getting married,” Chris said, before adding a couple of decibels. “The people at the Post Office knew who we were.

“You couldn’t have asked for more.”

Katie said she’s read about destination weddings, to Italy or a Paris or some other locale known for its romance, but…

“I would still pick Port St. Joe over anything because of the love we found there,” Katie said. “It was pretty