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Army veterans set to enjoy a July Fourth wedding

HAVERHILL, Mass. — For most people, the Fourth of July is a time for backyard cookouts and fireworks displays.

But for one couple, Independence Day will be their wedding day.

Mark Leonard and Rachel Blydenburgh served in the U.S. Army and each was injured while serving in Afghanistan. They met as wounded warriors and are now planning the wedding of their dreams, courtesy of the posh Renaissance Golf Club on Kenoza Street.

The Wounded Warrior Project put the couple in touch with Southworth Development in Newton, which owns the Renaissance club. Southworth had offered to host a free wedding for a military couple and asked the Wounded Warrior Project for recommendations.

Leonard said he learned about the offer through a Wounded Warrior Project email and, on a whim, he responded.

Then he received an email saying he and Blydenburgh had been chosen for the wedding opportunity.

"We were thinking of a small wedding at first," Leonard said yesterday as he and his bride-to-be toured the club in preparation for their big day next week.

"I'm speechless,'' Blydenburgh said. "I have no way to express how it feels. Instead of a low-key backyard wedding... to have something so grand."

"It's almost overwhelming," Leonard added.

The couple chose their 2-year-old daughter, Scarlett, to be the flower girl, while Leonard's 8-year-old son, Payton, will serve as ring bearer.

They are expecting upwards of 125 guests at the wedding, which is shaping up as a lavish affair that would normally cost between $150 and $300 per person, according to Cindy Lawrence, who is meeting and public relations director for Southworth.

Leonard and Blydenburgh met over morning coffee with mutual friends while still in the Army. They quickly developed a close relationship.

Engaged last 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.’’

Lawrence said it takes about seven months to plan such a wedding.

"We contacted the Wounded Warrior Project and told them what we’d like to do," she said. "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.’’

Blydenburgh, a Long Island native, and Leonard, a Pittsfield native, met while recuperating from injuries sustained while they were with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. They were at Fort Drum in upstate New York in 2010, where Leonard was recovering in a Wounded Warrior transition unit and Blydenburgh waited to receive retirement status because of her injuries.

She injured a disc in her spine while serving as an interrogator with an engineering unit, while Leonard suffered a neck injury as the result of a vehicle rollover.

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. They were living in Canton at the time, but now reside in Pittsfield, where Leonard grew up.

Blydenburgh, 25, a Long Island native, is entering her junior year at Mass College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, where her electives include pre-med courses. She plans to move on to medical school.

Leonard, 32, studied automotive mechanics for two years and is devoting time to resolving lingering issues related to his neck injury.

Leonard was attached to a National Guard unit from Vermont that had been sent to serve in Afghanistan. When he was injured, he was airlifted to a medical base, where he encountered other wounded soldiers. He said it was the first time he'd heard of the Wounded Warrior Project.

"They had backpacks filled with clean clothing for wounded soldiers whose clothing was tattered and soaked in blood," Leonard said.

Coincidentally, Leonard's friend John Bell happened to be the gunner in the armored vehicle he was traveling in and also sustained injuries. Leonard said his brother Shane Yuknis was in the vehicle ahead of his.

"He heard what was happening on his radio and looked back and saw our vehicle rolling over after coming around a sharp bend in the road," Leonard said.

Various local vendors have donated goods and services to the wedding, including Leah Haydock Photography of New Hampshire, which will donate the photography services. Le Fleurs in Andover will handle the floral arrangements. Boston Wedding Films will film the ceremony. 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. Salon Interlocks of Newburyport will provide hair styling and makeup, while Harpoon Brewing is donating beer.

"A lot of vendors really stepped up for us," Leonard said.

Blydenburgh said the wedding guests will be treated to baked haddock and champagne chicken, prepared by executive chef Dawson Frock.

Lawrence said that following the wedding, the couple will be treated to a the night in the clubhouse suite, also courtesy of Renaissance.

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