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Two wounded warriors treated to July Fourth wedding

Blydenburgh chooses flowers with Kerianne Steele of Les Fleurs.

HAVERHILL — Pink and white flowers fill a chandelier-lit ballroom. Crystals and pearls accent elegantly set tables.

Champagne and wine sparkle in dainty flutes. Gentlemen lift ladies in short dresses across the dance floor.

A dream to replace painful memories of war? A lavish scene from “The Great Gatsby”?

It will be a bit of both when Rachel Blydenburgh and Mark Leonard are married in Haverhill on the Fourth of July.

“Everyone wants a big, grand wedding,” said Blydenburgh, 25, who chose the Gatsby theme. “But nobody expects it to happen for free. We’re just infinitely grateful. If you told me this would happen four years ago, I’d have said ‘Yeah, right. That only happens in the movies.’ ”


The Army veterans met at Fort Drum in upstate New York in 2010, when each was recovering from injuries sustained while deployed to Afghanistan.

Blydenburgh and Leonard will be married in a 4:30 p.m. ceremony Friday before about 70 guests in the garden near the 18th green of a golf course. Their daughter Scarlett, 2, will be the flower girl. Payton, Leonard’s 8-year-old son, will be the ring bearer.

“We’re looking forward to this as a family,” said Leonard, 32.

The Rev. T.S. Deacon Economos, a nondenominational minister from Danvers, will officiate.

“Friendship and respect are the two key components of a successful relationship,” said Economos, who is donating his time for the service. “Their relationship is unique. They never would have met if they weren’t injured. One never knows how they will meet the love of their life.”

Renaissance, a private golf club off Kenoza Street, offered to donate the wedding to Wounded Warriors Project, a national nonprofit that assists veterans injured since 2001.

“We work with all sorts of nonprofits,” said Cindy Lawrence, director of public relations at Southworth Development in Newton, the club owner. “But we especially look for ways to help those who served in the military.”


On Memorial Day, Renaissance donated all golf proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project, she said. All active military personnel get a 50 percent discount on the site fee for weddings, Lawrence added.

Renaissance is providing the venue and food prepared by executive chef Dawson Frock of Danvers: prime rib, champagne chicken, or baked haddock. Several of its vendors have donated dresses, a DJ, invitations, and photo/video services.

Flowers, invitations, the wedding cake, and other services have been donated by small businesses across the North Shore and Merrimack Valley.

“She’ll carry a cascade-style bouquet,” said Kerianne Steele, director of weddings at Les Fleurs of Andover, which has donated flowers. “There will be feathers, crystals, calla lillies, garden roses . . . we’re very happy to be part of this.”

Interlock Salon & Day Spa in Newburyport will send 14 hair stylists, makeup artists, and manicurists. Each employee has volunteered to give up the holiday to assist the couple.

“There’s a lot of patriotism here,” said Ginny Eramo, the salon owner. “We have stylists whose fathers or family members served in the military.”

Her staff was moved by Blydenburgh and Leonard’s sacrifice.

“The fact that they met in medical rehab, after fighting in Afghanistan, it really touched people,” Eramo said.

The couple met while undergoing physical therapy at Fort Drum. Blydenburgh suffered disc and nerve damage to her neck while putting on her protective gear as she headed out on a mission high in the mountains of northern Afghanistan.


“I dropped my gear onto my shoulders like I always had and something snapped,” she recalled while seated in a rocking chair on the porch of the clubhouse at Renaissance. “It sounded like I had stood on a bag of popcorn. From there, it was like instant pain, muscle spasm, from my ear all the way down my arm.”

Leonard, who was deployed with an Army National Guard unit from Vermont, suffered a neck injury after a vehicle rollover in eastern Afghanistan. He received a medical retirement and still is being treated through the Veterans Administration, he said.

“Believe it or not, it was only maybe four months ago that they found the nerves that were being affected,” Leonard said.

At Fort Drum, Blydenburgh and Leonard were assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit, which provides services to help soldiers recover from injuries.

They bonded over long talks about their experiences in war.

“By the time we both got there, we were both so bitter . . . it was our common denominator,” said Blydenburgh, who eventually received a medical discharge from the Army.

But they went on dates to Applebee’s restaurant, car shows, and miniature golf courses.

After leaving Fort Drum, the couple moved to Canton two years ago. In February, they bought a home in Pittsfield, Leonard’s hometown.

The two have used veterans benefits to pay for job training and education. Leonard studied to be an auto mechanic, but is unable to work, he said.


“My ambitions were a little bit higher than my physical limitations will allow,” he said.

Blydenburgh studied premed and psychology at Curry College . In the fall, she will continue those studies at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, hoping to become a doctor.

“I’d like to be a reconstructive surgeon,” she said.

Friday’s extravaganza happened on a whim. Leonard read an e-mail from the Wounded Warrior Project offering a free wedding. Leonard responded, asking for more information. He received a phone call.

“They said we’d been chosen. I didn’t know that I had officially entered,” Leonard said.

Blydenburgh was in the shower, getting ready to go to a part-time retail job.

“He came in and said, ‘Hey, Babe. I think I just won a wedding.’ I said, ‘Yeah, OK. You’re funny.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not joking.’ ”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe