Locals know that September can be the best time to go to the beach — and for the past six years, they’ve shared that little secret with a group of Very Important Families.
Thanks to Operation SEAs the Day, 32 wounded military veterans and their families arrive in the area this week to spend some time relaxing and enjoying what the Quiet Resorts have to offer.
In preparation for the arrival of the (VIFs), some “alumni” of past “Warrior Beach Week” events return each year to help volunteers support the families while they’re here.
Several of the alumni joined volunteers and hosts over the Labor Day weekend at the Giant supermarket in Millville to pack bags of goodies for each family. Within a couple hours, there were enough bags to fill a trailer emblazoned with the Operation SEAs the Day logo.
Some of the alumni gathered afterward to describe what the week meant to them when they first experienced it, and how they hope to support the other Warrior families during the week and even beyond that.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Nima Emami said he and his family weren’t even planning to take part in Operation SEAs the Day last year, but another family had to cancel, so his family was invited at the last minute.
He had recently returned from Afghanistan and was beginning his recovery process through the Veterans Administration hospital near his home in Virginia. On a whim, he accepted the invitation to the beach respite week — without consulting his wife, Omy. At first, she said, she was not on board with the impromptu vacation.
“When you’re going through this process and your husband is not well, it’s just so stressful,” she said. “It all falls on you… and I felt like … he was taking us away from all this stuff we needed to do.”
As it turned out, it was the very best thing they could have done for their family, they said.
“I had been in the hospital. I needed to get away to just understand, to take a step back,” Nima Emami said. He added that, after his return to the United States, he had tried to participate in a couple events for veterans but, in his words, had “failed.”
Operation SEAs the Day, he said, was different.
“This, because of the way it was set up — you know, full of love… just very caring… that was the beauty of it. We could really take time… and (in the end) she really appreciated it,” he said.
Last year, Sara Klopfenstein’s husband was there to help Emami navigate the new experience, and this year she and her family are back to experience again as alumni.
“Her husband really ministered to my husband,” Omy Emami recalled.
Klopfenstein remembers her family’s first Operation SEAs the Day experience as “humbling. Pulling into the VFW, with all of the signs, getting the phone call from our host family and connecting with them… every last thing we did from start to finish was humbling. And to be able to come back, to help others, it’s something that we’ve looked forward to,” Klopfenstein said.
Another third-year participant is Air Force veteran Jonell Gottlieb. Although she retired in 2006, Gottlieb said she hadn’t participated in many veterans’ activities until Operation SEAs the Day.
Having recently moved to Virginia from Colorado, she said, she wasn’t particularly familiar with the area and had never heard of Bethany Beach.
“We came, and it was awesome. My favorite part is the kids,” Gottlieb said. “My kids had never met other kids whose moms have PTSD or they’re missing limbs and stuff. It was so awesome.
“Our kids would play together,” she said. “Even now it gives me goosebumps, because for the kids, it’s just unreal.”
One of Gottlieb’s favorite memories is of her daughter, who was 10 at the time, riding in the Operation SEAs the Day caravan with Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Gordon and his wife, Joan.
“They were our host family that year, and my daughter rode with them in the pace car. It was just amazing.”
Gottlieb said the bond that is formed among Operation SEAs the Day veterans and families is what makes it so special.
“When I’m surrounded by other wounded veterans, I don’t feel like such a weirdo,” she said. “I don’t have to, like, ‘watch it” as much. I can relax, and people aren’t going to judge me like ‘What’s wrong with her?’ It’s really nice.”
As a wife and a caregiver to a wounded veteran, Klopfenstein said, the experience is just as healing.
“It’s knowing that other people are dealing with the same thing...” she said of the comfort offered by the program. “All of the veterans are in different stages of recovery, but for us, it’s like we’re in different stages, too. Knowing that my husband’s not the only one,” she said, helped her to cope with her new realities when her husband came home.
The alumni also said they are continually touched by the outpouring of support within the beach communities while they are here.
“To have this group of strangers from this community willing to help you, not knowing you, not knowing your story, not knowing anything… it’s overwhelming,” Klopfenstein said.
This year, as first-time alum, Omy Emami said she has been telling the families she will be working with to “be ready to be overwhelmed. And pack light.”
As Omy Emami has struggled to put into words the way her family’s experience last year impacted her, she said she realized “I just felt filled — and I mean filled in every sense of the word, because they kind of just lavish you with this love and support and encouragement,” Omy Emami said. And, literally filled, as well, she said, because when families leave “your car’s full of stuff,” she said with a laugh. “We don’t want to go home.”
Klopfenstein agreed, likening the experience to visiting beloved family.
“You go in knowing nothing, and you end with a bonfire where everyone is talking and having fun, kids running around, and you’re making friends who you’ll call your family from here on.”
Throughout this week, Operations SEAs the Day families will be staying with host families at the beach, and in addition to just relaxing and enjoying some downtime with their families, they will participate in some activities that also involve the whole community.
Thursday, Sept. 6, is Family Night — when the families are in downtown Bethany Beach, having dinner, shopping and enjoying the town. Operation SEAs the Day participants can be recognized by the special OSTD ID tag they wear (a red-, white-and-blue VIF tag). Community members have been encouraged to take the opportunity to greet any of the VIFs they see and to take the opportunity to thank them for their service and sacrifice.
Friday, Sept. 7, starting at 4:45 p.m., the community really gets a chance to show their appreciation with the Heroes’ Welcome Home. Crowds will be lining the streets to cheer and recognize the families as a motorcade leaves the Marketplace at Sea Colony, driving along Route 1 through South Bethany and onto Route 54 through West Fenwick and into the Bayside community and its Freeman Stage, where the VIFs will be able to enjoy a concert.
Buses carrying the families will leave Sea Colony at 4:45 p.m. and arrive at Bayside around 5 to 5:15 p.m. Those lining up are being asked to wear red, white and blue, and wave an American flag.
For those looking to demonstrate their support with their wardrobe, Operation SEAs the Day 2018 T-shirts and hats can also be purchased at the Sea Colony Beach Shoppe, located at Sea Colony Marketplace, Route 1, near Bethany Beach, or at Sea Crest, 99 Garfield Parkway, Bethany Beach.
More than 100 local businesses have contributed to the effort to provide a great week for the honored heroes and their families. Sponsors and participating businesses will have red-, white-and-blue Operation SEAs the Day signs in their windows.
On Saturday, Sept. 8, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Cripple Creek Classic Car Show offers free entry to all spectators and celebrates the VIFs, as well as classic cars. The award ceremony for the show includes Veteran’s Best Pick in show. The show takes place at Cripple Creek Golf & Country Club, 29494 Cripple Creek Drive, Dagsboro. To learn more, go to www.cripplecreekcarshow.com.
For more information on Operation SEAs the Day, go to www.operationseastheday.org.
By Kerin Magill