By Eric Brandner

Chris and Stacy McMahon didn’t set out to teach.

They never planned to fall for each other in high school German class or to lose touch and then fall in love years later. They certainly didn’t plan for a life-altering accident and long recovery.

Teaching, much like every other twist in their lives together, found them. They just embraced the opportunity.

The Accident

Stacy McMahon was digging for crabs in the sand of Huntington Beach, Calif., on June 30, 2008, when the accident happened.

A medic by training and a member of the Nevada National Guard at the time, she had given a safety briefing to her family when they got to the beach. Chris was in the surf, teaching Stacy’s daughter from her first marriage, Kayla, 11 at the time, how to boogie board.

The wave that severed his spinal cord didn’t seem menacing, so when its deceptive power sucked Chris under the surf and slammed his head against the ocean floor, the family thought their practical joker of a patriarch was giving them an intentional scare.

“All of the sudden my daughter’s eyes become as large as the sun,” Stacy said.

I think that [for] other couples who are recovering – they’ve been like that ‘battle buddy.’

She remembers every second of the chaos. How she helped a lifeguard student drag Chris – then a technical sergeant in the Air Force – from the surf. How Kayla followed the safety brief and alerted paramedics. How in an unthinking moment of panic, she fought those paramedics in an attempt to provide triage to Chris herself.

What was already a sad family trip – they were in California to attend Chris’ uncle’s funeral – turned into a tragedy.

“We get up to the ICU and that’s when they tell me Chris broke [vertebras] C6 and C7,” she said. “C6 really jumped over C7 and lacerated 8 millimeters of his spinal cord.”

A long recovery followed. There were surgeries. Traction. Chris sliding off a gurney and landing on his head during an ambulance transfer.

A poor choice in a rehab facility in Nevada. A blood clot. Finding a better fit at a rehab facility in Long Beach, Calif.

There were high points, too. The first time Chris transferred from bed into a wheelchair. His January 2009 medical retirement ceremony, when airmen from his new unit flew from Albuquerque, N.M., to Long Beach to give him a proper sendoff. (“I’m so grateful they actually did that for him,” Stacy said. “He got to go out the right way.”) And the day he left Long Beach for their new home in Las Vegas.

Chris had his discharge set for Valentine’s Day 2009. He made reservations at The Melting Pot and had a dozen pink roses waiting for Stacy at their table.

“It was the first time he actually … realized ‘this is my injury and I have to work with it,’” she said.

The Reunion

To hear to the McMahons’ story is to want to believe in fate.

High school sweethearts for a year in Victorville, Calif., Chris and Stacy lost touch when their families left the area. Chris went on to enlist in the Air Force. Both got married, had two children and were no longer with their spouses in February 2007 when Chris sent an email to a woman he thought he recognized on MySpace.

“Chris’s nickname that I used to call him in high school was Goofy. It was a term of endearment,” Stacy said. “I looked at the email and thought ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Goofy.’”

Stacy was interested, but kept her distance for three months until Chris’s divorce finalized.

“On May 4, 2007, he flew from Albuquerque, [N.M.] out to Reno where I was stationed,” she said. “Honest to God, the minute I saw him walk off that plane I knew I was going to marry him.”

A year almost to the day, they did get married, and then moved to Las Vegas in June 2008.

The Turnaround

The McMahons teach love. They teach survival. They try to make a difference in the lives of others and express joy about doing it.

But like some of the other turning points in their life as a couple, teaching just sort of happened.

“We were feeling like it was going to be a vacation,” Chris said of their first trip to a USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminar in Twentynine Palms, Calif. “When we got there it was like ‘Wow, we can really benefit from this.’”

While they didn’t feel they had marital problems, the couple saw immediate value in USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars’ way of teaching communication and conflict resolution.

“We went to the seminar for the weekend and it really just changed our whole outlook,” Stacy said. “We always felt like we had the perfect marriage. … We just learned a different way of resolving things.

“And the cool thing was when we saw how beneficial it was … we thought ‘we’re going to bring this home and teach it to our kids.’”

Stronger Families – a Bothell, Wash.-based nonprofit organization – has teamed with the USO to focus on strengthening military marriages, creating healthy relationships between spouses that filter down through entire families and then out into communities. The USO/Stronger Families workshop model introduces concepts and exercises for couples to hone their communication skills, then gives them time during the workshop to play out scenarios, ask questions and get on the right track.

If our story helps motivate one person or helps rekindle one marriage, then I feel like my husband and I have been successful.

The McMahons brought the materials and the message back to their current home in Las Vegas and injected it into family issues, working out – among other things – ways of handling arguments with their kids without crossing the lines of respect.

“[We thought] maybe this will help them communicate better not only with us, but with their peers, with their siblings,” Stacy said. “I tell you what, it was a night-and-day difference.”

The Stronger Families team saw how effective the McMahons were at getting their message across – especially to troops and families facing major life changes after injuries – and started recruiting them to speak at seminars across the country. The USO contributed funds for the McMahons to attend Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars in Bear Creek, Pa., and a Stronger Families “train-the-trainer” seminar at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“I think what stood out the most is despite all the injuries and the emotional toll it’s taken on them, they still want to give back,” said Jackie Green, former USO Warrior and Family Care program manager for USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars. “They haven’t let their injury define their relationship.

“I think that [for] other couples who are recovering – they’ve been like that ‘battle buddy.’”

The McMahons – who are in the process of moving to Keller, Texas, to be closer to Stacy’s family – use their story at the seminars. They fill in blanks for recently injured troops and spouses that the broad Stronger Families materials don’t cover, like how to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs system or how to handle finances after a life-altering injury.

“If our story helps motivate one person or helps rekindle one marriage, then I feel like my husband and I have been successful,” Stacy said.