Kiersten Downs stood outside the rustic barn doors, breathing deeply to settle mild anxiety rising in her chest. It was just about time to make their entrance into their wedding reception. The lights twinkled around her, but her groom was nowhere to be found.
Something’s Not Right
The butterflies fluttering in Kiersten’s stomach began to shift from nervous excitement to full blown panic, as she frantically searched for her groom. But her wedding planner, Michelle, urged her to step inside. Something didn’t seem right…
Kiersten Downs could never have imagined the surprise that awaited her when she entered the barn turned ballroom. With twinkling lights strung from the rafters, throwing a soft light onto the multiple guest tables arrayed around the central dance floor, Kiersten felt like she was entering a fairy tale. Michelle, the wedding planner for the venue, Wishing Well Barn, convinced Kiersten that her new husband, Thomas Martineau, had just gone to the bathroom. As Kiersten stepped inside, alone, she got the shock of her lifetime.
Veterans Of Love
Kiersten Downs, who is currently 34 years old, is an Air Force veteran living in Tampa, Florida. Her groom, Thomas Martineau, at 32 years old, is also an Air Force veteran, who escaped from his service physically unscathed, before suffering a horrific motorcycle accident in 2008, a number of years before he first met new wife Kiersten. The accident left Thomas Martineau without the use of his legs, as he was paralyzed from the chest down, a consideration that had already affected the couple’s nuptials several times.
Barriers To Marriage
The couple, one half of which is wheelchair bound, has already had numerous existential threats to their relationship. Indeed, they are not your average couple in many ways, given that both served in the Air Force. It was this shared past that allowed both of them to bond, in the first place. They were introduced over Facebook, through a mutual friend who knew Kiersten was looking for another player for a disabled veterans basketball team, called “The Tampa Bay Strong Dogs”.
The couple’s nuptial plans were first spoiled purely for logistical reasons. But they pressed on, determined to vow their undying love to one another. The pair moved their wedding date to December 2016, intent on being married in front of Kiersten’s grandmother in New York. With a venue prepared and paid for, the wedding gown of her dreams in tow, the couple were ready to fly north to meet the remainder of the Downs clan. But the universe had other plans.
Fighting For His Life
Days before they were set to marry, Kiersten Downs and Thomas Martineau found themselves not in a wedding hall surrounded by friends and family, Kiersten’s grandmother in particular, but in the emergency room of the local VA hospital. Martineau was suffering complications from his paralysis, and needed to be rushed into emergency surgery. It was a trying time for the couple. Their wedding now canceled, many nights were spent fighting with the VA over the phone for adequate medical care.
A Glimmer Of Hope
Martineau came through his health crises, as the universe smiled down on him once more. The affair was rescheduled for March 2017, this time in nearby Plant City, Florida. Martineau desperately wanted to give Kiersten the gift of a lifetime saying, “Being in the chair, I thought I could never be able to live up to being the husband that she could have. That was a fear I always had: Having the wedding…and having to settle for things as they were.”
A Devious Scheme
Martineau got to scheming behind his bride to be’s back. It helped his secret that she was entirely preoccupied with grad school. Downs was in the midst of researching her dissertation for a Ph.D. in applied anthropology, for which she has been studying at the University of South Florida since 2011. After six years of research, she could see the finish line, but it left her blind to what her soon to be husband was cooking up behind her back.
Thomas Martineau joined the Air Force in 2004, immediately after graduating high school. He worked as a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Technician for four years, eventually rising to the rank of staff sergeant. Martineau had achieved the lowest rank for a non commissioned officer, and the first rank that is achieved based on merit, rather than time in the service. Unfortunately for Martineau, his 2008 motorcycle accident ended his service, leaving him “depressed and despondent.” At that time, he couldn’t conceive of the surprise he’d eventually give his wife.
Getting Involved With Advocacy
After his accident, Martineau began to rebuild his crushed spirit by getting involved with veteran affairs. He became a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which is a support and advocacy group established by World War II veterans who returned to the United States with devastating spinal cord injuries. Through their tireless work, they have helped to fund medical research, as well as put together a coalition to lobby for increased veteran services and disability rights.
Building Himself From The Ground Up
In addition to his work in veteran affairs, Martineau has been putting in his own hours in the classroom, as he studies for a masters degree in architecture at the University of South Florida. He began the degree in 2015, likely inspired by partner Kiersten’s dedication to pursuing higher education. Martineau is expected to complete his degree in 2019, and with his family’s continued love and support, will go on to build an exciting architectural legacy.
Kiersten Downs also had an impactful service. The descendent of a World War II veteran, her grandfather, prophetically told her upon enlistment, “Remember that nobody wins in war”. Being that she was just 18, the full impact of those words didn’t hit her straight away. She served three tours of duty, but her first two only took her small Pacific island nations, where she loaded bombs onto bombers, as she was told. His words finally hit her on her third tour, when she was deployed to Iraq.
Horrors Of War
When she touched down at the dusty, Iraqi airbase in 2006, Kiersten was hit with the full brunt of a scorching, arid climate. It was there that she finally understood the extent of the horrors wrought by war when you’re on the losing side of a bomb. As she toured the local hospitals, the visions of suffering people burned into her mind. She returned to the US angry and confused, determined to set off on a soul searching journey that would lead to her destiny.
The Longest Mile
When Kiersten returned from her deployment at Ballad Air Base in Iraq, where she’d served as orderly, she was awarded a scholarship for the excellence of her service, but she didn’t know how to process her time spent in the heart of Operation Freedom. She needed space to think and to cycle through the full spectrum of emotions rolling through her mind, so she planned a 3800 mile, cross country bike trip, without which she may never have met Thomas Martineau.
A Harrowing Beginning
Kiersten trained for her epic road trip on the mostly flat roads of her native Florida, so she and her body were in for a shock when she arrived in California to start her journey. As she began to pedal, she realized quite suddenly that California was anything but flat. Crowned by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, she was almost immediately beset with hairpin turns that climbed their way up sharp gains in elevation, which pushed Downs to the brink of tragedy.
Downs was cycling with all her strength, completing each stroke of the pedal with all the power she could muster to keep up enough momentum to continue climbing the mountain. Desperately alone on the dangerous mountain pass, her determination was the only thing keeping her going, when her front wheel hit a pothole. Downs’s heart lept in her chest as she tumbled forward, flipping over the handlebar of her bike, as she landed hard on her back, only to hear the distant rumble of a truck.
Running solely on adrenaline, Kiersten grabbed her bike, the rumble becoming a veritable earthquake signaling the imminent arrival of the oversized vehicle. As disaster drew ever nearer, Downs rolled onto the side of the road, narrowly escaping the bone crushing wheels of a tractor trailer. As pain coursed through her leg, Downs brushed herself off, and began limping with her bike up the desolate road. It was six aching miles before she encountered another person, her mother with her supplies, who implored her to rest.
Kiersten sidelined from the ride only a week in, needing to take several days to recuperate, lest she sustain lasting damage to her limbs. She had determined the proceeds of her ride would go towards Student Veterans of America, an organization dedicated to helping veterans studying in university to access life-saving resources. Due to the vast network this community provided, Kiersten was quickly pulled from her isolation, as students across the country joined her ride as a show of thanks and moral support.
The Road To Destiny
Downs raised a total of $50,000 for Student Veterans of America. Cycling nearly 70 miles a day, she piqued the interest of journalists several years before her wedding surprise would once again make headlines. Beginning her journey on June 1, she cycled for two months, before arriving in Washington DC. The people she met along the way convinced her even more that she had to become an activist for veteran affairs, a road which led her from the vistas of the West to marriage with Martineau.
Never A Bride
It’s ironic to think that Kiersten Downs has gained national attention for her wedding, after vowing during the bike trip four years prior to her nuptials that she would never marry. She simply didn’t believe in the principle of marriage itself. She shared this thought with cousins she joined up with in Utah during her trip, who didn’t let her forget it as they teased her during her astonishing wedding reception. “They were just absolutely roasting me about it,” she told Task & Purpose.
Student Veterans of America
The organization that kept Downs inspired throughout her cross country cycling adventure was Student Veterans of America. The organization was founded in the wake of the post September 11th GI Bill, as young veterans returning from tours of duty in the Middle East, just like Kiersten Downs found that the university’s they now had access to didn’t have the appropriate infrastructure to provide the support their new wave of student veterans needed. The organization was officially established in 2008.
Still Leading The Pack
Through Kiersten’s involvement with the SVA, she was put in touch with an ever larger number of other veterans, which is the network that eventually connected her with Martineau, as she sought to find more players for the disabled veterans basketball game. Given the depths of the organizations impact on her life, it’s no wonder she is still involved, as she is currently serving on the board of directors, a position she has held for over a year and a half.
Though Downs and Martineau had conversed over Facebook for some time, they still hadn’t met face to face. The stars finally aligned though, and Martineau found himself on bedrest in an attempt to be ready for a basketball came and was in need of help. Through their veteran network, Kiersten volunteered to bring him some Thai food. Thomas says of their first meeting, “The food was horrible, but I knew the moment she opened the door she was the one.”
Relics From The Past
There was another complication to their plans. Martineau has several kids from a previous relationship. But Martineau’s nurturing demeanor made the transition to a blended family easier. Downs went from never being able to see herself as a wife to agreeing to marry and become a step mother to two children all in one shot. It also made Martineau’s wedding whammy even more poignant, as his two children were present for the long awaited, emotional moment.
With their wedding date finally set for the third time, Downs and Martineau were determined to make this the last time they plan their wedding. When it came to the first dance, however, the couple was stumped. Figuring that no plan was still some sort of plan. Kiersten expected to just wing it. “I thought I was going to sit on his lap and roll around and grab the kids to dance and sort of improvise,” she said.
A Plan Is Formulated
Several weeks before their wedding date, Martineau began seeing a friend of his, Stephen Hill, who was retired from active duty in the special forces, where he served as a medical sergeant. Following his service, Hill accepted a position as the lead trainer for the Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center, located in Tampa, the same clinic where Martineau was rehabilitated after his accident. Together, the two men began to plot something that Kiersten would never see coming.
For his wedding day, Martineau wanted to be in top shape, so he trained with Stephen Hill, building up the strength he would need to get through such an exciting, yet draining day. He kept this a secret from Kiersten, who was too busy studying to even conceive that Martineau was cooking up something behind her back. But Martin and Hill wanted to take it a step further, ensuring that Kiersten and both of Martineau’s children would experience one of the most exhilarating moments of their lives.
The Excitement Builds
The day of their wedding dawned bright and balmy, as any winter day in Tampa would. Kiersten arose early, in a flutter of energy, to begin preparing for her special evening. She had found the perfect dress, the perfect venue, and everything for the night was in place. As she sat down to have her hair styled and her make up applied, she was so full of joy and excitement that she thought she would explode. Meanwhile, Martineau had some preparations of his own.
The Glow Of Love
The young family piled into their cars, as the start of the ceremony drew even closer. Kiersten was as beautiful as she had ever been, positively glowing with love and excitement. She had chosen a modest gown accented by a long row of buttons marching down the sheer back. Lace flowers crawled down her arms, and she’d chosen a delicate up-do for her hair, gently twisting the strands away from her face, and culminating in a web of curls at the nape of her neck.
0 Hour Draws Near
During Kiersten’s extensive preparations, Thomas dressed in his wedding suit and contemplated the validity of his plan. Only three people attending the wedding knew his secret, him, Stephen Hill, and Michelle, their wedding planner at Wishing Well Barn. Though he had assured that all the necessary preparations had been made, but it didn’t really allay his fears that something else would go wrong. But Thomas, ever the champion, refused to let his fears show on such a happy occasion.
A Ceremony For The Ages
The couple made their way through the ceremony, surrounded by their network of friends and family, who watched breathlessly as Kiersten, exquisite in white lace, glided down the aisle to join Thomas at the alter. They exchanged vows that held the promises of the future and declared their endless love for one another, despite the challenges the couple had already faced before carefully placing their rings on the other’s finger. But as they took their pictures, Kiersten had no idea what was in store.
Capturing The Moment For Posterity
Following the beautiful ceremony, Kiersten and Thomas were led by their photographer to the surrounding blueberry fields on the grounds of the Wishing Well Barn, where they were to spend the next hour taking photos with each other, as well as with their respective families, in an effort to capture the magic of the blessed union. Kiersten was in a daze of happiness as the scent of wildflowers wafted over them as they embraced each other, the moment frozen in time.
The Final Frenzy
Just before Kiersten was about to receive the shock of a lifetime, Thomas was sought out by Stephen Hill, certain that their plan would fall through. Martineau told Task & Purpose, “Steve came in the day of the wedding, and he was sure it wasn’t going to work. He was literally running around getting gear during the ceremony. It wasn’t until pictures afterward, the wedding planner, who was the only person in the loop, came and grabbed me.”
With pictures taken, Kiersten was ready for their first dance. She had chosen the song especially for the moment, written and performed by friends of theirs, a duo called War and Treaty. The husband and wife team were also veterans, who had met Downs after a veterans open mic. Michael Trotter was taken by Downs’s accounts of her deployment in Iraq, an experience he could relate to personally, as he shared three tours of duty during the same time period. It was the perfect soundtrack for the moment.
Unbreaking Your Heart
Kiersten’s heart was pounding as the opening bars of “Unbreaking Your Heart” sounded across the hall, and Michelle urged her to step inside, where Thomas would meet her. She explained to the panicking bride that her husband had only gone to the bathroom minutes before, and would meet her in the hall via the secondary entrance to the barn. Reassured, Kiersten took a deep breath and began to dance her way in alone, but something was very different
The Surprise Of The Century
Kiersten’s jaw dropped. She told Today, “I danced my way in and had to adjust my eyes because something was different.” There was Thomas, standing in the center of the dance floor with no wheelchair in sight. Kiersten made her way over to him, brimming with euphoria as he gently embraced her waist, and they began to sway and twirl together, husband and wife, while a song that underscored their collective journeys played around them.
But how did Martineau achieve this miracle? He and Stephen Hill had devised a system of pulleys and wires that attached to the ceiling, which was then attached to a harness he wore around his shoulders. The moment was striking not just for Kiersten, ecstatic that she was able to truly dance with her new husband, but it was also poignant for his children to have the chance to see him standing, as well as for he and his daughter to dance together.
Circle Of Friends
Though Kiersten was freaking out about the security of the harness, worrying it would fall down, Thomas’s stunt went off without a hitch, which he credits entirely to his friends. Martineau told reporters after the video of their first dance went viral, “When you surround yourself with a good community, anything can happen. We met people who put us in touch with Steve, through those open mics — they all had an incredible impact on us.” Thomas will never forget Kiersten’s smile when she first saw him.
A Surprise Seen Around The World
A number of Downs’ and Martineau’s guests captured the Kiersten’s emotional first dance with her new husband, and as the video footage was posted on the internet, it began to spread like wildfire. Garnering over 100,000 views on the video sharing platform, YouTube, Kiersten and Thomas’s story was subsequently picked up by a number of news channels across the country. Well-wishers from around the world took to their keyboards to wish the couple well in the videos comments.
The Sneakiest Sweetheart
In the aftermath of the shock Kiersten’s husband gave her, she confessed that she always knew he was a little bit of a sneaky guy, but she was so filled with gratitude that he’d managed to put in so much time and effort in order to surprise her. She was reeling for the rest of the night, and felt almost like the rest of the affair floated by, as if she were in someone else’s fairy tale.
Despite the long and winding road, the couple is looking forward to the future. Although she already knew it, Thomas’s dedication to giving Kiersten the ultimate wedding gift, shows just how wonderful of a man and a partner he is. She tells Task & Purpose, “I can’t express enough how important it is to…engage with the communities around you, whether they have a past in the military or they are civilians,“[B]uilding relationships is the key to successfully reintegrating after we leave the military.”