hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

December 12, 2013

From the battlefield to the altar

City company provides plush wedding for wounded warriors

By Bruce Amaro

---- — For Mark Leonard and Rachel Blydenburgh, a storybook meeting is leading to a dream wedding.

As members of the U.S. military, they made it through tough times in Afghanistan and met as wounded warriors.

Now they are planning to hold their wedding, courtesy of Renaissance Golf Club’s offer to sponsor a Wounded Warrior Wedding celebration, at the posh 30,000-square-foot clubhouse on Kenoza Street. It will be as American as possible — falling on July 4.

Leonard and Blydenburgh met over morning coffee at a friend’s apartment while still in the Army. They quickly developed a close relationship.

Engaged in June, they decided they wanted a vintage wedding, something out of the novel, “The Great Gatsby.’’ They knew it would take time for that to happen because they would have to save plenty of money.

“We like the vintage and style from that era, the 1920s, not the money but the texture and fulfilling lifestyle from that period,” Blydenburgh said. “I’ve read Gatsby so many times.’’

Typically, a wedding like the one Renaissance plans to put together for Leonard and Blydenburgh will cost from $150 to $300 per person, said Cindy Lawrence, meeting and public relations director for Southworth, the company which owns Renaissance. The couple expects 120 people for the event.

The couple now lives in Canton. They met while recuperating from injuries sustained while in the military with U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. They were at Fort Drum in upstate New York, where Leonard was recovering in a Wounded Warrior program and Blydenburgh waited for retirement status because of injuries. She damaged her spine while on operations as an interpreter for an engineering group, and needed back surgery. He suffered a neck injury as the result of a vehicle rollover.

That is where Southworth Development from Newton, Mass., the owners of Renaissance in Haverhill, stepped in. Southworth offered to pay for the wedding the couple wanted. The wedding will help get them on their way to re-entering civilian life as a settled married couple with a family. They have an 18-month-old daughter, Scarlett.

“It takes about seven months to plan a wedding like this,” Lawrence said. “We contacted the Wounded Warrior Project and told them what we’d like to do. They vetted some couples for us and as soon as we got the information about Mark and Rachel, we contacted them. Once we heard their story and met them, there was no turning back.’’

At the same time that Southworth began its search, Leonard said he heard about the wedding opportunity through a Wounded Warriors email. He replied on a whim, but thought little of it afterward. He didn’t even mention it to Blydenburgh. The two were surprised and thrilled to recently hear they had been chosen.

When Southworth began to review prospective couples, some were not local and would have logistics problems or were not ready to go through the lengthy preparation process, but Leonard and Blydenburgh best fit the plan.

Blydenburgh, 24, has decided to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology and fill in her electives with pre-med courses, then move on to medical school.

“I know I have years of schooling ahead of me, but it’s the way I want to go, and I know it’ll be worth it, worth the trouble and work,” she said.

Leonard, 32, is finishing two years at a Massachusetts campus of the Universal Technical Institute, a national school. There, he studies automotive mechanics.

Leonard was attached to a National Guard unit from Vermont that had been sent to serve in Afghanistan. After recuperating in Germany, he was ordered into the Wound Warriors program and the nearest one to Vermont was Fort Drum.

Fort Drum happened to be where Blydenburgh’s unit reassigned her after her injury and it was from there that the Army retired them both.

With their full-time student status, and a new baby, this offer of a professionally planned wedding at a place like Renaissance makes Blydenburgh’s Great Gatsby dream a reality.

Other local vendors have donated goods and services. Leah Haydock Photography of New Hampshire will donate the photography services. Le Fleurs in Andover will handle the floral arrangements. Boston Wedding Films will film the wedding. Invitations will come from Soiree in Andover. Cakes For Occasions from Danvers will make the wedding cake, and Flair Bridesmaid on Boston’s Newbury Street will provide the dresses.