Kiersten Downs and Thomas Martineau hadn’t planned on dancing at their wedding. The 32-year-old Martineau, an Air Force veteran, had been confined to a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident in 2008, and while the couple talked about how they wanted their first dance as a married couple to play out, they didn’t really have a plan.
“I thought I was going to sit on his lap and roll around and grab the kids to dance and sort of improvise,” Downs, 34, and herself an Air Force veteran, told Task & Purpose. She met Martineau in 2014, years after his accident, and after a prolonged engagement, she was itching to finally tie the knot.
“I would dance with my husband regardless of his disability,” she said. “I met him when he was in his chair and I will forever love him regardless of his status.”
But on the day of their wedding in March, when Downs stepped into the rustic barn just outside Plant City, Florida, that she and Martineau had picked out for their reception, she couldn’t believe her eyes: There he was, standing upright before her. Through a system of wires and pulleys, their friends had literally strung Martineau from the ceiling so he could dance with his bride.
“It was different and fun, and it was a moment to really remember and carry forward,” she said. “But for his kids, to see their faces and to see his daughter crying and dancing with her dad, that was really special.”
Video of their dance captures the pure joy and euphoria of the moment, but Downs sees it as more than a special moment for the newlyweds. That Martineau could stand upright, and that the wedding even happened at all, was a testament to the communities helped the two veterans return home after years fighting abroad.
In 2014, six months before she met her future husband, Downs vowed to never marry. Five years removed from her service — she was stationed in a support role with the 174th Fighter Wing out of Hancock Field in Syracuse, New York, a stint that included a deployment to Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2006 — she was spending a big cross-country cycling trip “analyzing the institution of marriage” with her cousins when they met up in Utah.
“It’s kind of funny,” Downs told Task & Purpose after her wedding just a few weeks ago. “They were just absolutely roasting me about it.”
Downs and Martineau were united by the Air Force, though they didn’t know each other during their service. Martineau joined the Air Force in 2003, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. The day he was paralyzed from the waist down was “the first day I got to wear my E-5,” he says. The accident left him depressed and despondent. “I lost my sense of myself and self-worth for a couple years,” Martineau says.
Both deeply involved in the local veterans’ communities in Tampa, Florida, Martineau was introduced to Downs through Facebook by a friend while hunting for fellow vets for a wheelchair basketball team, the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs. One afternoon, she brought him Thai food while he was on bedrest with a sore back, attempting to heal up before a tournament.
Thomas Martineau and Kiersten Downs on their wedding day.Photo via Kiersten Downs
“The food was horrible,” says Martineau, “but I knew the moment she opened the door she was the one.” The two were engaged a few months later.
The engagement lasted several years while the two faced a mounting set of challenges together. Downs was attempting to finish her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, while Martineau was struck with a series of health issues stemming from his accident. The two stood by each other through late nights of research and screaming matches with administrators at the Tampa VA; every conflict just made them stronger.
Then tragedy struck. After moving up their wedding date to December 2016 in New York (“we wanted to get married in front of [Downs’] grandmother,” Martineau says), the groom fell suddenly ill and went in emergency surgery a few days before the two were scheduled to walk down the aisle.
“We had to cancel the wedding, which was such a big blow to us,” says Downs. “We had put the money down on the venue. We were in the hospital all through the holidays.”
With the wedding rescheduled for March, Martineau wanted to make the day as special for Downs as he could. “Being in the chair, I thought I could never be able to live up to being the husband that she could have,” he said. “That was a fear I always had: Having the wedding and being stuck in the chair and having to settle for things as they were.”
Martineau had grown close with Stephen Hill, a retired Special Forces medical sergeant and the lead trainer at the Stay in Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Tampa where Martineau went for physical therapy after his accident. The two began exploring options for the wedding.
“Steve came in the day of the wedding, and he was sure it wasn’t going to work,” Martineau says. “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.”
Thomas Martineau and Stephen Hill, his trainer. Hill rigged the harness while Martineau and Downs exchanged vows.Photo courtesy of Kiersten Downs
Downs planned on entering the reception with her new husband by her side, but she was blown away to see Martineau upright, a smile plastered across his face. “You could see all over her face how much I surprised her, and how beautiful a moment it was,” said Martineau. “Without Steve getting it done, it wouldn’t have happened.”
It was the music that sealed the moment. Downs had met Michael and Tanya Trotter, as husband-and-wife duo who play as The War and Treaty at a veteran community open mic in Tampa after publicly reading some personal essays about her deployment. Her stories resonated deeply Michael Trotter, himself a three-time veteran of Iraq who’d been deployed around the same time as Downs. Before the December wedding, he’d played a song called “Unbreaking Your Heart” at an open mic and asked Downs if he could play it in person at their wedding.
“The lyrics are so heartfelt and based on real experiences,” Downs says. “It was the most amazing gift for us.”
Both Downs and Martineau believe that that surreal moment of their first dance would never have happened if it hadn’t been for their network of friends, veterans and otherwise, who came together to support them during their ups and downs.
“When you surround yourself with a good community, anything can happen,” says Martineau. “We met people who put us in touch with Steve, through those open mics — they all had an incredible impact on us.”
Kiersten Downs and Thomas Martineau with Martineau's two children.Photo courtesy of Kiersten Downs
“I can’t express enough how important it is to put yourself out there and engage with the communities around you, whether they have a past in the military or they are civilians,” Downs says. “Growth happens when we’re uncomfortable, when we challenge ourselves to share and be vulnerable. And building relationships is the key to successfully reintegrating after we leave the military.”