“My Name is... and I Am Currently Serving in Iraq...”—from an e-mail to Hilton Head’s Operation R&R
Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: john brackett
It’s different now, of course, with e-mail and cell phones to keep in touch with family back home. But the dirt on his boots and the dirt in her hair is still the soil of Iraq or Afghanistan, both hostile, dangerous environments. Even though images travel at the speed of light, loved ones are still a long time away.
To date, over 1.75 million U.S. soldiers, men and women, have served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Over one-third have had multiple deployments. Families can’t help but be stressed. Thanks to Hilton Head’s “Operation R&R,” several hundred of those families are able to set aside the stress for a few days with a complimentary island vacation.
“I can’t help but be profoundly moved by the generosity of Lowcountry businesses and our short term property owners,” said Dr. Grant Evans, founder of “Operation R&R.” Back when it began, in 2007, Evans’ idea was simple enough. Offer soldiers—and their families—who had served or were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, a free place to stay on Hilton Head Island. He encouraged Beach Properties, the short term rental management company he used for his villa, to find “a few” other owners to offer their homes and villas to the soldiers. With the help of a few friends and wife, Mia, he got another major sponsor, Atlantic Community Bank, to help with expenses.
Evans’ idea took on a dimension he only dreamed of. From January through May of 2008, 60 property owners signed up of offer their home or villa, along with 20 restaurants and eight other vacation-oriented businesses to help host the families. By the end of May, Evans calls it “Phase One,” 57 military families from Ft. Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, enjoyed a Hilton Head Island vacation.
Over the spring and summer, Operation R&R “got legs.” The idea and program—“Phase Two”—became so popular, there are now 10 short-term rental companies involved. The Vacation Company even included the program on their weekly blog, “Hiltonheadsup.com.” The number of properties available to returning soldiers has risen to 300 units, and 60 restaurants offer meals at 50 percent or more off. Another 25 businesses offer free or deeply discounted services to the military and their families.
“That commitment runs deep,” Evans said. As an example he mentioned the Piggly Wiggly at Shelter Cove and Bob Cook, store manager. For every $1,000 Operation R&R gives Piggly Wiggly, the grocery store provides $2,000 in gift cards, which are included in the gift basket the soldier-visitor receives.
Word among the troops has spread. Soldiers who can now qualify include those from Ft. Stewart and Hunter Army Air Field, the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Beaufort, and members of the U.S. Marine Corps on Parris Island. What has somewhat astonished islander Carolee Hutton, who has volunteered to handle all the requests coming in through e-mail and phone, is requests from soldiers in combat zones who want to take advantage of a Hilton Head vacation. All families have been extremely appreciative, she said.
One example of how the soldiers and their families feel was posted on “Loving a Soldier,” one of the more popular Army wife blogs. “I have to tell you we are FLOORED by the generosity and gratitude of the community of Hilton Head Island. We arrived to our four-bedroom, three-bath beach house that a family donated for the troops. It is AMAZING!!! We can see the beach from our back porch. (We woke up this morning to dolphins playing right outside our window.) It is absolutely beautiful here. …I am so proud of you, Hilton Head… I wish every place was this great. It’s beautiful; the people are amazing, and we are so very thankful.”
Operation R&R has morphed from Evans and wife Mia running the show into something Evans only dreamed of. The organization now has a board of eight directors, was the recipient of a grant from the Heritage Classic Foundation and the Long Cove Foundation, and is now under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry (www.cf-lowcountry.org), where donors can help fund the program.
Evans said that with the increasing numbers of families signing up for vacations, Operation R&R is in need of more “greeters.” The greeter’s job is to “meet the family when they arrive and act as the family’s contact point while they are here,” Evans explained. There is a form on the group’s website, www.operationrestandrelax.org, for anyone interested in becoming a “greeter.”
By the end of May, when “phase two” comes to a close, Evens figures the program will have provided well over 350 vacations to Iraq and Afghanistan troops since it began in 2007. A part-time island resident, Evans indicated he couldn’t have said it better than the Army wife blogger: “I’m so proud of you, Hilton Head.”