March 2016

From Eastern Afghanistan to Oysters on the Half Shell

Author: Paul deVere

All five-year-old Gabriella needed was the pool, beach and lizards. And her dad. She needed her dad. She hadn’t seen him in nine months. Chief Warrant Officer Pete Sarvis had been flying an Apache attack helicopter when he was “down range” in Afghanistan. Pete, his wife Gina and Gabriella, were the guests of Operation R&R, Hilton Head, a non-profit organization that provides military families the opportunity to reconnect at the beach after a long deployment overseas at little or no cost.

“My daughter loves pools and catching lizards, so we had to circle the entire condo, finding all the lizards in the area,” Pete said. “I’ve been gone for nine months, so whatever your daughter wants, she gets.”

“It’s so nice just to relax,” Gina said. “We’ve been deployed six times, and we usually have to be somewhere right away, rushing around, meeting people. Here, there’s no schedule. We can do whatever we like.”

However, there was something scheduled on one of the Sarvis’ “no schedule” days. “While I was in Afghanistan I was turned on to this program (Operation R&R) by my first sergeant. He was telling some of our pilots and troops about this program they have on Hilton Head. We’d been to Hilton Head before and we love it. So I e-mailed the application and got a really quick response from Holly Gifford,” Sarvis explained. Gifford is the reservations director for Operation R&R. She is also a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel.

Pete’s return home was delayed a few days, so he had to change his family’s arrival date. “Holly arranged all in less than 24 hours. That was great. First of all, I was really impressed with what my family was getting. Amazing. Then getting back to me within that day. Wow. So I wanted to give something back,” Pete said.

His idea: Fly an American flag in his Apache on a combat mission in Afghanistan, on 9/11, 2015, and present it to Operation R&R during his family’s visit. “I’m from New York, and 9/11 is a pretty big emotional symbol for me,” Pete said.

So on a warm, sunny day in November, at the Veterans Memorial at Shelter Cove, Sarvis took time out to give John Cully, an Operation R&R board member, and Dr. Grant Evans, founder and CEO of the organization, the flag he flew on a combat mission on 9/11, 2015, with a certificate explaining the event and a background photo of Sarvis’ Apache over eastern Afghanistan “kicking off flares.” The flag and certificate will become part of a display of other honors at Hilton Head Island’s Town Hall.


John Cully, COL, USA, RET (center), and Grant Evans, founder and CEO of Operation R&R (right), accept a Certificate of Authenticity and flag from Chief Warrant Officer 3 Pete Sarvis (left). The certificate and flag were among the thank you gifts Sarvis brought for Operation R&R

While Sarvis’ gift was moving, it was made more so by the man who accepted the flag and certificate. John Cully is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who moved to Hilton Head Island in 2002 after 27 years of service. Cully began active duty in 1970. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, Republic of Vietnam. He was a Cobra attack helicopter pilot, what many authors (and pilots) considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in that war.

As Gabriella ran and played at the park, Sarvis and Cully, traded experiences as pilots, though more often than not, it was the young pilot, flying the world’s most advanced combat helicopter, who listened to the guy who flew what became the icon of the Vietnam war.

With the presentation over, it was time for the Sarvis family to continue to reconnect. “When I was in Afghanistan thinking about this vacation, I really thought about food. My wife and I are real foodies,” Pete said. “I wasn’t really getting any fresh seafood in Afghanistan, and I was looking forward to being out here on the coast; I’m a big oyster fan,” Pete said.

They were ready for more seafood and more biking on the beach and looking for seashells. Miniature golf was happening that afternoon; and the next day The Sandbox, an interactive children’s museum on the island, was on the “non-schedule.”

Sarvis, who is stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, said, “We took a look at the packet our greeter gave us—all the discounts, everything. There’s just not enough time for it all.” Except for their time together. “There was time for that,” Pete said. And for Gabriella.

Operation R&R, Hilton Head, was founded in 2008 by Dr. Grant Evans as a way to help troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reconnect with family. Over 400 island property owners offer their villas and homes free of charge. Over 60 restaurants and 35 service related businesses provide valuable discounts to Operation R&R’s military guests. For more information, visit hh.operationrandr.org.

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