Who Will Win the "Trip of a Lifetime"?
Author: Lance Hanlin
In 2008, Hilton Head Island resident Grant Evans found a way to give back to married women and men returning from military action in the Middle East. By donating his oceanfront condo for a week in the offseason, he started the Operation Rest and Relax movement. The purpose was to give a soldier fresh off the battlefield a chance to relax and reconnect with his or her family.
Like many great ideas, Operation R&R snowballed. Fast-forward to today, the non-profit organization has 15 local short-term management companies and approximately 400 owners in its program who have donated a free week or more of their homes or condos on the island. By the end of May, Evans expects more than 700 military families will have taken advantage of that generosity.
And it hasn’t stopped with free lodging. Sixty restaurants are now in the program, and most discount 50 percent or more of the tab. For those who prefer the atmosphere of eating at home, Piggly Wiggly at Shelter Cove Plaza and Food Lion on Palmetto Bay Rd. offer food cards. There are also more than 35 local service-related businesses (water sports, bike rentals, miniature golf, salons, etc.) involved.
Hargray Communications and BB&T Carswell Insurance Services are the program’s two main corporate sponsors. The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa also jumped on board, donating more than 100 complimentary nights to families only able to commit to three nights or less.
The program’s success has been documented by both local and national media, including a segment on Fox News. Evans hopes to expand the program to the Charleston/Myrtle Beach area, the Austin (Texas) area and the Lake of the Ozarks area in Missouri. From there, he hopes the program takes off nationally.
This month, Evans is asking readers of C2 magazine to get in on the Operation by providing one of these deserving families with a “Trip of a Lifetime.”
A generous business owner (who wishes to remain anonymous) heard about the project and decided to sweeten the pot by offering a free week for four on his 46-foot Catamaran in the British Virgin Islands. The trip includes round-trip airfare, food, beverages and $1,000 in traveler’s checks.
Readers are asked to decide who wins the prize, valued at more than $8,000, by voting online at celebratehiltonhead.com. Letters and photos of the three finalists are listed below. The winning family will be announced on May 26 at a luncheon at Windows on the Waterway in Hilton Head Plantation.
To qualify for Operation R&R, soldiers must have served in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past 12 months, be married, still enlisted and come from Fort Stewart in Hinesville (Ga.), Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah or the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort. All who have participated in the program were given the opportunity to apply for the “Trip of a Lifetime” cruise. The Operation R&R board of directors whittled that number down to the three most-deserving families. Now it’s up for you to decide who gets it.
“When you read these three letters, you’re going to tear up,” Evans said. “It’s kind of unbelievable what some of these families go through. Read all of them, vote with your heart and realize nobody really loses in this. They’re all winners. They’ve already been here for a week. This is just icing on the cake, so to speak.”
FAMILY NO. 1
The Ashburn Family
Dear Operation R & R,
Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, my family and I have endured a lot of separation. I have been gone March 2003-July 2004 in Iraq, January 2005-Janurary 2006 in Iraq, December 2007-December 2008 Sinai, November 2009-November 2010 in Afghanistan. This does not count the time away due to training, schools, and field exercises.
My wife Sonya (Sunny) is the rock of our family. From the times you see above Sunny is both Mom and Dad on many occasions and has the knack to be in two places at once on numerous occasions. A lot of our friends always comment “how does she do it”. Sunny is a college student, working on her bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies scheduled to graduate this year. She has always put our family before her own wants and desires and can take a little bit of money and make it stretch like no one I know. Always involved in military family activities she took on the task in July 2009 to be the Family Readiness Group Leader for my unit, D Troop 3-17 Cavalry. The unit consists of 138 Soldiers and families, Sunny spent countless hours helping the spouses of our unit so their Soldiers could concentrate on the mission. Sunny spent Thanksgiving 2009 in the hospital with a spouse who had emergency surgery, so she would not be alone. She opened our house to spouses who just needed to talk, cry, and a place to stay while looking for a house or they just did not want to be alone on the holidays.
Living the military life is not an easy thing to do my daughter Heather went to nine different schools before she graduated in 2007. She has always been our little artist; Heather loves animal’s especially aquatic animals and has always been interested in drawing, painting, crafts and photography. She is now married, and a college student and has our two beautiful grandchildren ages 2 1/2 (Braelyn) and 5 month old (Rylan).
My son Blake is a whole different story; you do not realize the impact deployment has on children. He has always had allergies to nuts and all kinds of medicines, when I deployed to Iraq in 2003 he suddenly started breaking out in hives. Sunny took him to doctors for months, removed everything from his room and completely made it an allergy free zone. The doctors could not figure it out and just kept putting him on different kinds of meds. Finally Sunny had enough and took him off all the meds. I came home shortly after that on mid tour leave and he had no problems breaking out. The problem was he missed his Dad. At night he would lay in bed worried about me and would break out in hives. I had a long talk with him before I went back to Iraq. I was in Kuwait getting ready to head home in 2004 and we got notice that we had to go back into Iraq due to the Al Sadder uprising in southern Iraq. Calling home and letting my family know was the most dreaded phone call of my life, and that night Blake broke out in hives again after being hive free since I was on mid tour.
My son Ryan is our baby. He is such a strong individual and desire to go into the ministry as he is a leader in our Church’s youth ministry. Ryan gets great grades in school and spends between Bible Study, visitations to others with our Youth Pastor and Church at least 4 nights a week busy with God’s work for him. I can’t think of many parents who walk into their child’s room and find them reading the Bible or praying. It makes us very proud of the commitment he has to the Lord.
As you can see my family, not me, deserves the vacation of a life time. They have been my rock and what allows me to do what I do. As a husband and father I always worry about my family, but I know the strong individuals each of my family members are and combining their strengths they can accomplish anything.
FAMILY NO. 2
The Herschede Family
Dear Operation R & R,
I wanted to thank this program for considering my family for this contest, first off. Allow me to tell you a little bit about us. My name is Matthew Herschede and I’m a Sergeant in the United States Army. My beautiful wife Allison and I have been married for nine years. We have two beautiful children, Diana, six, and Aidan, four. We are also expecting our third in late August. I have been in the army for five years where I work as a part of the signal corps, providing phone and internet services to my brigade of just over 4500 soldiers. I am currently stationed at Fort Stewart, GA as a member of Third Infantry Division. I recently have completed my second tour to Iraq with 3rd ID. We deployed to Northern Iraq, and spent twelve months assisting the Iraqi people during the elections and subsequent months.
My family is really remarkable for a number of reasons. My daughter, Diana was born in September of 2004, and has been one of the most fiercely independent but loving children I’ve ever seen. I can remember immediately after she was born, full of that pride a first time father knows, and having my family ooh and ahh over her, holding up her head, and feeling her grab my finger. She has grown up so quickly, and has continually shown how brilliant and independent she can be, all the while, making sure that Daddy gives her a hug every night. She took both of my deployments hard, because she and I have always had such a close bond. I think she always felt a little abandoned, which hurt me on so many levels, but she always came back to loving me as soon as I came home. My son Aidan, was born in November of 2006, and is his mother’s son. He was conceived right before I went to basic training, and born right after I finished my Advanced Individual Training (AIT). I wasn’t able to be involved as much in his birth as I wanted to be, and my deployments have kept me away for much of his formative years. He is brilliant as well, easily on the same level as his very intelligent sister at two years younger. He is much less independent than Diana, usually following her lead, and acting as the diplomat in the family, trying to suggest things that will bring everyone together. Because I’ve missed so much of his life, we are not as close as I would like to be, and it’s something I strive to repair every day. My wife Allison is truly an amazing woman. She is a type-1 Diabetic, and has been since she was 18 months old. She uses an insulin pump to regulate her insulin and has also chosen to follow a primal lifestyle, which allows her to control her blood sugars to a level almost unheard of in a type 1 diabetic. That lifestyle is not an easy one to maintain, and I am very proud of her strength in keeping it up. She has also managed to live as a single mother for two deployments, keeping our family strong and together, while I served my country in Iraq for a total of twenty-six months. She is truly a phenomenal woman.
The time away from my family became very difficult near the end of my second tour, and I felt my family drawing away from me. When I returned, we were fortunate enough to have been chosen for the Operation R&R program, spending a week in an absolutely fabulous house in Hilton Head. While there, we explored the island, meeting many people who when seeing our black wristbands emblazoned with “Operation R&R” went out of their way to treat us with a kindness that we were absolutely floored by. At the end of our week, I felt like our family had been rejuvenated, and we were once again a united unit, ready to face any challenges the world could throw at us. The folks at Operation R&R have done wonders for my family, and my life, and even if we aren’t selected, I want them to know just how much I will always appreciate the love and kindness they have shown my family and me. Thank you for your time.
Matthew Herschede and Family
FAMILY NO. 3
The O’Day Family
Dear Operation R & R,
As a military wife of 21 years, when asked why we deserve a trip of a lifetime, I found it difficult to put this into words. I can only hope by giving you glimpses of our journey, that you might understand why this trip would mean so much to us as a couple.
Deployments began the first year of service in the Army. They began with Desert Storm. After that it was Bosnia, then Kosovo, 3 tours in Iraq and recently Afghanistan. With four children, I remember so many first times that my husband missed. The first day of school, the first play, the first time they rode a bike…so many firsts that he didn’t see. I remember the pages and pages he wrote to me during the early deployments, before email was available. I have over 800 emails from each deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember the phone calls that he faithfully made no matter how long the lines were or how tired or sick he might be. I tried to imagine what it was like to live in tents and huts in a foreign country where you are not always welcome. There was the tragedy of losing fellow comrades and, my husband, a soldier so devoted to his troops, that he took his two weeks R & R and we spent them going to memorial services instead of going on vacation. I cannot imagine how any of this must feel. The family memories sacrificed, the loneliness, the danger and long hours that are endured are a testament of integrity, love and commitment that my husband, this incredible human being and soldier, has lived for others. There are not words deep enough to thank my husband for what he has sacrificed and given to his family and country.
I can also tell you that for the military spouse it can be a bumpy and sometimes very lonely ride. When your spouse is deployed, as the main caregiver, you must find a way to juggle the responsibilities at home, reassure your spouse that all is well even if it’s not, and try not to let the loneliness consume you. In 2004, I was told I had cancer. My husband was gone and I made the difficult decision to have surgery and wait for the outcome before asking him to come home. I did not want to worry him. The surgery was successful and the cancer was caught early. But it changed my outlook on my time apart from my husband. I decided that from this point on, I would find ways to give back to the community and people less fortunate instead of focusing on the loneliness. I volunteered at Hospice and visited Nursing Homes where people are dying alone. I became an advocate, and still am, for the right to live and die with dignity and that no one should have to die alone. I had no time left to feel lonely, only grateful. I can only hope I give a drop of what people have given to us.
This brings us to the present. We have come full circle. After all the deployments and time spent reconnecting when returning, we are still best friends. We have worked hard to prove that military families can stand strong and be committed to our families and country. My husband has taught our children and his younger soldiers what true commitment is. On our four days at Hilton Head provided by Operation R & R, my husbands response to the generosity bestowed on us was, “We need to make sure we give back 10 times as much as these people are giving to us.” This sums up his entire life of sacrifice.
For us to go on this trip would be a celebration of our commitment, love and loyalty to God, each other, our families and our country. But most of all, I would get to see the weathered wrinkles, in my husband’s face as he smiles at me while he enjoys a trip of lifetime.
For more information on Operation R&R, visit www.operationrestandrelax.org.