A family vacation to the beach is not always within reach for the family of military veterans, whose focus is often on paying the bills and the overall health of the family.
Enter Operation SEAs the Day.
The mission of the non-profit organization 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.”
Bryan, a retired Army specialist E4 from eastern Maryland, said that many veterans’ families, including his family of four, would not be able to enjoy a week-long vacation in Bethany Beach.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you’re retired from the military — you must have lots of money!’ No, we don’t. We’ve got enough to get ourselves by — pay our bills, and I can take my wife out to dinner once a month.”
Editor’s Note: In the interests of privacy, we are witholding Bryan’s last name.
Bryan and his family will be returning to Bethany Beach for the third year in a row next week — when OSTD hosts its fifth Warrior Beach Week, Sept. 5-10.
He and his family first participated in the program in 2015 as one of 25 “Very Important Families” (VIFs).
“OSTD reached out to the Wounded Warrior Project and asked for veterans that they felt could benefit from the experience Operation SEAs the Day provides. So, the Wounded Warrior Project reached out… We had a great time.”
Last year, they returned to Bethany as alumni, to help guide new VIFs through the week, which Bryan said can be “overwhelming.” This year, they return as “super-alumni” and sit on the Board of Directors.
“The second year, when we told our kids they were, like, ‘What?! We get to go back?! That’s awesome!’ We were excited, too!
“This year, when we told them we get to go back again — it’s all they’ve been talking about since they got out of school. ‘We’re going back to Bethany!’ ‘When do we get to go back to Bethany?! Is it this week?! Is it this week?!’” he recalled with a laugh.
“With us being super-alumni, we’ve had to go down there for board meetings, and so, one week we didn’t take them, but the next meeting we took them. They were, like, ‘Oh, it’s this week we’re going to Bethany!’ And we were, like, ‘Yeah, but it’s only for a day.’ ‘Awww!’ We did take them to the beach that day and let them play at the beach while we were there.”
Bryan said that, before OSTD, he and his family had bad very little involvement in veterans’ organizations.
“I had only been involved with Wounded Warrior Project for maybe six months and only been to a handful of events. I wasn’t one of those veterans who took full advantage of what they had to offer. I did one or two here or there, and hung out with the other veterans who were at the event.”
But there was something different about OSTD that made them want to be as involved as possible.
“It really just gave me that hometown feeling — that World War I, World War II-esque feeling when everyone came home and they threw a parade, and everyone was thankful and grateful. The whole town came out and basically said, ‘Thank you for your service! You don’t have to pay for anything; you don’t have to ask for anything. Whatever you need is on the house! If you want to come in and just sit on my couch, the front door is open for you! I’ll make you dinner!’
“That’s something that a lot of veterans didn’t get,” he said frankly. “Especially with the Vietnam era — that just went right out the door. They got the horrible end of the deal.”
When he returned from his own deployment, Bryan said, it was as if he had never gone away.
“Nothing. Just came in on my flight with my unit, right back into my base, turned in my gear and went right back to doing our job here at home.”
A focus on the family
The organizers of Operation SEAs the Day recognized there were few organizations that were working with the whole family, and wanted to give them the thanks and welcome home they deserved.
With that in mind, the VIFs are offered beach houses to stay in — free of charge — with a stocked refrigerator, welcome basket with items for the children and adults, gift certificates and a slew of events hosted throughout the week that they are invited to but not required to attend.
“As a veteran family of four, they give you the opportunity to have a beach house right on the beach. Sometimes, families of four or five people, we can’t afford a beach house for a week. That’s kind of pricey for some people.
“For them to donate a beach house to us for a week and say, ‘Here you go!’ — that’s incredible. And not only is it a beach house, but it’s fully furnished, all your linens. They stockpile it with food and give you gift certificates to, like, every restaurant in the area, so all your food and everything is taken care of. You don’t have to shovel out a dime unless you’re getting some alcohol. It’s just amazing,” Bryan said.
“Then, every night they have a huge dinner for you somewhere. Or, if they don’t have a huge dinner for you one night for all the veterans to get together, they’ve given you a gift certificate for somewhere that has a big dinner for you. Then they’ve set up surfing or parasailing or deep-sea fishing or a bay cruise. One year, they had Jet Ski riding. They have stuff that retired veterans just can’t afford.”
One of the highlights of the week is the “A Hero’s Welcome Home” motorcade that will take the families to a concert at the Freeman Stage at Bayside, when the public is invited to stand alongside the route and show their support.
The route is always lined with hand-drawn posters thanking the veterans and their families for their service to their country, and welcoming them to Bethany. Following the parade, the VIFs will go into the Cove at Bayside and enjoy dinner, before attending the Bruce in the USA show.
This year’s parade will be held on Friday, Sept. 8. Buses filled with VIFs will leave Sea Colony at 4:30 p.m. and are expected to arrive at Bayside between 5 and 5:15 p.m. The buses will be accompanied by local police and fire departments, the Delaware State Police and more. Those who participate along the roadside are being encouraged to wear red, white and blue while they wave an American flag as the motorcade goes by.
The support and kindness is so overwhelming, said Bryan, that the first year, he and his wife cried.
“The first year, we didn’t know what we were getting into. Our first night, we were so overwhelmed — my wife and I with our host family — we just stayed there and cried, because they were giving us all these things. We’ve never had this kind of outpouring of love from random people, people that we didn’t know. We just sat there and cried. Literally, our mouths were on the table, because we had never experienced that.”
Along with having time to be a family, and not focus on making sure they can pay the bills or worry about an episode the wounded veteran might have, Bryan said the beach week allows veterans to connect with other veterans, as well as the spouses to connect with other spouses and the children to connect with other children.
“We have close friends now that live in Ohio. We have friends now that are close up in Pennsylvania. And we still meet up with them.”
The family also became close with their host family, which is a family that volunteers their time to help the veteran family with anything they might need during their stay in Bethany.
“We’re really close to them. Our host family, they send Christmas cards to the kids with gift cards.”
He said it helps that most people involved in the organization have some sort of military connection.
“Everybody who was out there was a veteran family. Everybody out there helping was military-related in some way. So, they understood the issues they were dealing with. They understood how to help them cope and deal with whatever was going on.”
Bryan said he and his wife feel driven to help others, so when OSTD asked them to return as alumni, they said they would love to help.
“We have that giving spirit. Once we got there and helped other people and saw how much they appreciated it and loved it… You saw the stress and burden lift off of their shoulders, just how they were able to relax,” he said. “Coming back the third year, that was more of what we wanted. We wanted to come back and help people again. We want more of that feeling of helping people. That’s what draws us.”
Bryan and his wife said they hope that other veteran families and Americans who want to show support for them will participate in the annual event.
“I think it’s the best little kept secret. I really do. I think it’s the best little kept secret Delaware has.”
For more information about Operation SEAs the Day, to donate or find out more about how to get involved, visit www.operationseastheday.org.