August 2008

From Bagdad to Hilton Head in 48 Hours: Operation Rest & Relax caps off phase one of troop appreciation vacations

Author: Paul deVere

It is almost impossible to imagine. Army Lieutenant Colonel Mickie Williams is in Bagdad, Iraq on June 1. It is the end of his third tour. About 48 hours later, he and his wife Fran, daughter Loreal, and son Stefan walk through the doors of their Sea Pines vacation home for a few days of rest and relaxation. “This is beyond an expression of appreciation, above and beyond,” Williams said.

The Williams were the final family to enjoy a virtually expense-free vacation on Hilton Head Island, thanks to an idea that popped into Dr. Grant Evans’ head less than a year ago. Evans wanted to show appreciation for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in a significant way. He had rental property that wasn’t occupied in the “off season,” and decided to put it to good use.

By June, his idea, Operation R&R, included dozens of property owners who donated their homes and villas to returning troops at Ft. Stewart, Georgia, where many of the troops for the Iraq “surge” came from. “We had 35 restaurants participating, with Steamers, Sunrise Café, Market Street Café, and Captain Woody’s picking up 100 percent of these families’ food bills along with about 18 local businesses participating, from bike rentals, movie theaters, facials, pedicures, and rounds of golf. H2O Water Sports in Harbour Town donated free wave runners, parasailing, and eco-tours to over 150 military related people,” Evans said.

It was what happened at H2O Water Sports that completely floored Williams and Fran, who had helped orchestrate Operation R&R from the U.S. Army’s side. “A gentleman walked up to me and started talking about the military and thanking me. He invited us out to dinner that night,” said Williams. “There were four of us and 18 of them. They welcomed us as if we were a part of their family.”

“I was somewhat embarrassed. They had me sit at the head of the table,” he continued. (It was he and his wife’s 18th wedding anniversary.) “They wanted to know what was really happening.”

And he told them. About the Sons of Iraq, the new chicken and fish farms. About sitting across from a one-time enemy tribal leader, helping him to achieve reconciliation with the Iraqi government—an Iraqi who was on William’s list to eliminate. “Regardless of religious sect, regardless of cultural difference, he said something that resonated in me that I think would resonate in any human,” said Williams. “He said, ‘I’m tired of fighting and I’m tired of seeing my countrymen and my people senselessly killed. I want to make this country a better place for my children, and their children.’”

Phase 2 of Operation R&R begins in September. The organization is now a 501© (3) nonprofit under the Community Foundation of the Low Country. Donations can be made to Operation R&R and sent to: Atlantic Community Bank, PO Box 3077, Bluffton SC, 29910. Visit operationrestandrelax.org.

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