In less than a month, 30 soldiers and their immediate families will come to Bethany Beach to take part in the second year of Operation SEAs the Day, as “Very Important Families” (VIFs).
“Last year was our first year, and we brought 25 families,” said Richard Katon, a founding member and board member of Operation SEAs the Day.
Katon joined Becky Johns and Diane Pohanka in creating the 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with a simple mission: “to organize and facilitate a beach week event for our wounded soldiers and their families as a means of showing our appreciation for their service and sacrifice. It is our hope that such a community-based gesture of support will be comforting and help ease their transition back into civilian life.”
“We felt it was important because the resources that are provided to the soldiers are so meager after they return,” said Katon. “They get immediate care at Walter Reed and some other VA hospitals, but after that, they go into their community and are very isolated. They don’t have anyone with similar experiences to talk to. They get very withdrawn. We knew this, but we didn’t realize the depth of it until we started the program.”
“Most of the people aren’t able to work successfully,” he noted. “Their lives have really been terrible. They’re economically deprived, as well as socially and emotionally. All of these things got so much better [when they were here]. First, just being at the beach is therapeutic for everybody, but being in a community where they saw signs of welcome and kind people reacting to them.”
Not only are the soldiers affected by their deployment, said Katon, but so are the families.
“The women talked a lot. We had a spa day for the women,” he said. “They just face a series of unique problems that they feel comfortable talking to each other about, but they can’t talk to their next-door neighbors about necessarily — the nightmares, the hospitalizations, the kids feeling separation anxiety, which sometimes leads to learning problems.”
This year, Warrior Week will be held Sept. 2-7, with numerous activities available to the troops and their families, including a family night at the bandstand, a concert at the Freeman Stage, boating and more.
Operation SEAs the Day works with the Wounded Warrior Project to select through an application process wounded warriors and their families to come to Bethany Beach for the weeklong retreat.
“We wanted the event to be bigger, but we also realize that Bethany is a small community and we don’t want to overwhelm the sponsors and the businesses who have come out and been so generous,” said Katon of inviting five more families to participate in the event this year for the first time. “There’s just a balance that we’re trying to seek to provide services for the most soldier families as we can without overwhelming the town.”
Along with adding five additional VIFs to this year’s invite list, Katon said that five alumni families from last year’s event will be returning to the beach to help with the week’s activities.
“We picked five of the families that seemed very engaged in the process and somewhat articulate about the process, whom we felt really benefitted tremendously from having participated last year. Each one of those families will informally be given families, to oversee their introduction to the process, in addition to the host family,” he explained.
Katon said that, as last year’s event was occurring, the organizers realized that some of the warriors and their families would want to return to Bethany Beach and came up with the idea to have returning alumni.
“But we really wanted this to grow and take in new people,” he said. “One of the things we wanted to do was blend those two purposes… In melding those two ideas, we felt that having a group that had done it before be there to sort of help break the ice with these guys. A lot of these wounded warriors felt more comfortable dealing with other people in similar circumstances that they felt understood their problems better.”
Katon said the returning alumni can serve as a resource for the VIFs, as well as the host families.
“We thought it would add another dimension of comfort and familiarity. The people who volunteer to be in the alumni family group won’t be receiving all of the benefits of the new VIFs.”
Katon said the five alumni families basically “chose themselves” and were eager to give back to the event.
“Most of them had called us and said, ‘Is there something more that we can do to help this year’s program?’ They probably want to be part of it again and want to give something back,” he said. “They really wanted to do this. They wanted to give something back because they felt positive about having been a part of the process.
“A couple of them have been down to our board meetings, tried to give us ideas of little bumps in the road they felt. It has been a very powerful event in their lives, and we wanted them to be able to share that with the new warrior families.”
One of the hard things for the warriors who arrived for last year’s inaugural Warrior Beach Week was their initial landing in the process.
“We had a meet-and-greet as our initial event, at the VFW, and at that event, we try to welcome the visitors and orient them as to what their week was going to be like,” he said.
Katon said many well-meaning people were giving the VIFs baskets of food and gift cards and trying to introduce them to the area, “but it was pretty overwhelming.”
“We might have underestimated the amount of anxiety that these guys and families came with. Since then, we’ve learned from talking to them, a lot of these people were in a sort of reclusive, depressed state. This idea of a public gathering, which seems like a great way to begin the week, was difficult and anxiety-provoking for a lot of them.”
Katon said he became involved in creating the event serendipitously, when he met co-founder Diane Pohanka on an airplane.
“We started talking about the fact that we both had places in Bethany,” he said. “She and Becky had talked about doing something like this, and I said I’d love to help. The three of us got together and just came up with this plan. I think we all bring different skill sets. It’s a great working relationship that sort of came out of the blue.”
With the second Warrior Beach Week quickly approaching, Katon said it’s amazing to see how the organization has grown so quickly in its short life.
“We never envisioned at all the support that we have gotten. Our original idea was to try to get housing for the families, and that was a goal we thought maybe we could achieve. And we thought that maybe some of the businesses in the community would pitch in a little bit, but we had no idea.”
With close to 100 volunteers who helped regularly with the event — from helping sell T-shirts to making welcome signs, Katon said the community support was something the three had never imagined.
“It took us all aback a lot. Our first introduction, the three of us wandered around town asking people to help. No one knew who we were or what we were doing,” he said. “We have over 50 businesses listed on our website now that are contributing something to this event. Most of them are small businesses. They’re not General Motors or Apple — most are mom-and-pop-type businesses who are really going all out to help.
“We had no idea of the scope… It’s just been amazing and great. The three of us that started it just stop and look at each other and think where we were a year ago when we were looking for a place to sell T-shirts, and where it has come to now. We’re just in awe.”
Katon said that he hopes this year’s event will be a positive impact on the 30 new VIFs as it was for last year’s 25.
“We hope it will be as great as last year,” he said. “It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced, the way the community has come forth. It’s awe-inspiring. It floors us. We marvel at it and we appreciate it. It’s like a miracle. It has been a magical experience.”
He added that the event has touched many lives in so many different ways, and for that, he is grateful to be a part of such an amazing organization.
“It’s a blessing that keeps on giving to us and giving to them. It’s so much of a win-win experience for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s like a tree that’s spreading out for the people involved. To us it just feels incredibly damn good.”
For more information about Operation SEAs the Day, to view pictures of the week, or to find out more about how to get involved, visit www.operationseastheday.org.