In 67 days, 25 military veterans and their families will travel to Bethany Beach for a week of support and relaxation, thanks to the nonprofit organization Operation SEAs the Day.
The mission of Operation SEAs the Day (OSTD) is “to organize and facilitate a beach week event for our wounded soldiers and their families as a means of showing our appreciation for their service and sacrifice. It is our hope that such a community-based gesture of support will be comforting and help ease their transition back into civilian life.”
The first “very important families” (VIFs) arrived in Bethany in the fall of 2013. This year, Warrior Beach Week 2016 will run Sept. 6-11 and give 25 wounded veterans and their families the opportunity to enjoy a beach vacation.
During their week at the beach, the families will stay in homes that have been donated for their use. The families will receive gift bags stuffed with goodies that include gift certificates to local shops, towels, toys and other fun items.
In order to make OSTD the best it can possibly be, organizers invited alumni families to return the second year of the event, and in subsequent years, to serve as friendly faces to help the veterans feel more comfortable.
For the first time, this year, two alumni families are serving on the operating committee in planning Warrior Beach Week.
“I chose to serve our country because my dad had served in the Air Force also, and because of Sept. 11,” said Jason, a staff-sergeant who medically separated from the Air Force. “I was in high school at that time, and I saw what happened. It instilled that decision in me to go join the military.”
Having been deployed twice — once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan — Jason returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The biggest thing I deal with is PTSD,” he said. “It causes a lot of issues with my spouse and my family. It basically makes me less sociable, quicker to anger. I have nightmares that cause me to have disturbances in my sleep, which causes other people to have disturbances in their sleep.”
Jason and his wife, Sarita, are one of the two alumni families serving on the committee. They first came to Bethany as a VIF in 2014 and went on to serve as an alumni family last year.
“We wanted the chance to pay it forward and help other VIFs feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. We hoped we could make it as good for them as the experience was for us,” said Sarita. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk to other veterans and ask them for help than it may be to ask the host family. So we tried to make ourselves available to them.”
The couple heard about OSTD through the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. Both actively volunteer for veterans outside of OSTD — Sarita with Operation Homefront and Jason running a local support group for veterans through their church.
“There’s lots of resources out there, and I enjoy helping other veterans to find those resources. While other veterans may not do the same thing, that’s what my experience as a veteran has been,” said Jason. “I find a resource that is something that I can use, and then I make sure that other people know about it, so they can use it and get better.”
Although the couple had experienced similar retreats in the past, they said there was something special about OSTD.
“It was a really awesome experience. We felt really welcomed by the community and very appreciated. It was just overwhelmingly wonderful,” said Sarita. “We had some expectations, because we had been on other veteran retreats. It was definitely way better than what we expected…
“I loved the spa day that first year, because, obviously, going to the spa is awesome, but it was a chance to be with other women all day and talk to them without any kids around. That was really wonderful.”
“I just enjoyed connecting with the other vets, just talking to them,” said Jason, adding, “The parade — how overwhelming the parade was, and the concert... It was just nice to be appreciated.”
Jason said that when he returned from his two deployments, the welcome home was not as moving is the patriotic motorcade to the Freeman Stage, where community members are encouraged to line the streets as the families travel to the show that night.
“For both Iraq and Afghanistan, we landed at Baltimore at BWI. There were about 20 people who said, ‘Welcome home.’ From there, we got our bags, and we moved out two days later to go back to our base,” he said. “It was small, but it was nice. It was better than I had seen other people have to deal with.”
When they served as alumni families, the couple’s information was given out to five of the VIFs to which they were assigned.
“Each alumni family had five other families they were to help guide or say, ‘Hey, if you want to go to this, this is where we’re meeting up. If you have problems, contact us and we can get you squared away,’” explained Jason.
“We were supposed to participate and attend all events, just to be available and a face in the crowd that they knew,” added Sarita.
Sarita and another alumni wife started a caregiver support group during the week.
“When we were there last year as alumni, they started the caregiver support group, and we were there every morning. It was a chance that any caregivers that wanted to come out and talk and feel supported, and to get resources… Every morning, we were there for an hour or two.”
“Normally, at that same time I was off to the side or a little bit away, talking about the veterans, making sure they were doing OK in the mornings also,” Jason added.
Sarita even went as far as to create a private online forum for the veterans and caregivers of OSTD, as a way for them to keep in touch.
“We support each other and provide resources. It’s a closed group… It’s a safe place to vent if they need, or share memories — just a way to keep the connection going,” she said.
“People can talk about resources each person is using, saying, ‘Hey, maybe you guys need to look at this,’ or, ‘If you guys are having problems, you can reach out to one of us.’ It’s basically there for us to help each other out,” added Jason.
As for resources in a broader sense, Sarita noted that not all states offer the same benefits to veterans and their families.
“Some states, you pay no property tax if you’re a 100-percent disabled veteran. There are some states that do free tuition for veterans. I wish some of that was more national, versus if you happen to live in one place or the other,” she said. “I wish there was student loan help for caregivers. There’s help for veterans, but not for caregivers.”
“So many times, the caregivers have to give up their jobs and can’t go to work because they have to take care of their veteran. It makes it really tough sometimes to actually maintain a household, when you have these huge bills you have to pay,” added Jason.
After traveling to Bethany first as a VIF, and then as an alumni family, Jason and Sarita jumped at the chance to serve on OSTD’s operating committee. Sarita also helps run the organization’s social media efforts.
“It was basically another way to pay it forward, to help the staff this time. The staff really made us feel like family, especially Richard, Becky, Chris and Annette have opened their arms to us, and we wanted to be able to help them. We already think Operation SEAs the Day is awesome, but to see what we could do to make it even better.”
This weekend, those attending the Bethany Beach Fourth of July Parade can keep an eye out for the Operation SEAs the Day float, as members of the organization will be participating in the parade.
Area residents and visitors can show their support of OSTD by purchasing official gear at the Sea Colony Beach Shoppe, Bethany Fine Arts, the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market (through the end of July) and WSFS Bank in Ocean View.
Although Warrior Beach Week is still two months away, volunteers are needed now, to help support merchandise sales at the Bethany farmers’ market on Sundays during July.
Those who wish to make a contribution may also participate in the OSTD Poster Pal program, featuring poster-making stations at the Bethany farmers’ market on Sundays through the end of July, where anyone can stop by to decorate their own welcome sign for the warrior families.
The signs will be used to welcome the families when they first arrive in September, and again during the patriotic motorcade to the Freeman Stage for the Bruce in the USA concert on Friday, Sept. 9, beginning at 7 p.m. The VIFs will then have the opportunity to choose a poster at the farewell breakfast to take home, as a reminder of their time in Bethany Beach.
Through their involvement with OSTD, Jason and Sarita will have traveled to Bethany Beach six times before this September’s Warrior Beach Week.
“We love the beach; it’s beautiful. It’s terrible what the storm did to you all,” she said of the erosion caused by nor’easters over the fall and winter. “I love the little downtown area; it’s so cute and fun to walk with all the shops.”
“I love the food. I’m a really big crabcake fan. We don’t have really good quality crabcakes here,” said Jason from the couple’s home.
“Yeah, he pigs out while he’s there,” Sarita added with a laugh.
Jason and Sarita both said their experiences with OSTD have been one-of-a-kind and that they are grateful to be involved.
“I’d just like to say ‘thank you’ to everybody there — the community as a whole. It’s great what you guys are doing,” said Jason.
“It’s like having hundreds of extra grandmothers and aunts and uncles who all just welcome you and make you a part of their family,” Sarita said. “It’s a really wonderful experience.”