Last year, community members banded together to form Operation SEAs the Day, a beach-week event for military servicemembers and veterans who are recovering from injuries sustained while serving the country, as well as for their families.
Its mission was simple: “To organize and facilitate a beach-week event … 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.”
This year, the Warrior Beach Week will be held on Sept. 2-7, with 30 soldiers and their families set to visit Bethany Beach and enjoy a stress-free week of family fun.
Along with the 30 families, which were selected by the Wounded Warrior Project, five additional families who were part of the inaugural Warrior Beach Week in September 2013 have been selected to return as SEAs the Day alumni.
“I can’t say enough about Operation SEAs the Day,” said Bill Durham, a veteran who participated in last year’s inaugural week. This year, Durham, along with his fiancée, Mary Jayne, and service dog Annie will be returning to Bethany Beach as alumni representatives.
“I did not know anyone when I came here. I was leading a shut-in’s life, but I’m back a year later trying to volunteer and participate and help other people, because it was such a great experience,” he said.
Durham served in both the Air Force and Army, and met Jayne while the two were in the Army. The two heard about Operation SEAs the Day through the Wounded Warrior Project and decided to apply for the opportunity.
A resident of Harrisonburg, Va., and a native of West Virginia, Durham had never been to Bethany Beach until last year’s Warrior Week.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said, adding that it was special to experience the community’s welcome when driving into town last year. “There were signs up welcoming the families. My fiancée did two combat tours in Iraq, as well. It was nice to come to an area that was welcoming you from the minute you’re there.
“I don’t know how far out the signs extended. I don’t know the boundaries of Bethany Beach. But I know, for miles before we got to where we were supposed to be, there were signs up welcoming the soldiers and their families.”
All of the Very Important Families (VIFs) will be staying in homes or condos donated for the week by local homeowners.
“‘Very Important Families,’ that’s what’s crucial to it, because that’s what it is — it’s the family. Operation SEAs the Day, they want to bring the families together. It’s not necessarily about the soldiers; it’s about healing the whole family,” said Durham, adding that the homeowners have been extremely generous to donate their homes to the nonprofit.
“To open your home up to people you don’t even know, and allow them to stay in your home, just on trust and goodwill of your fellow man, is kind of a rare thing today, and they had it for us. I think we all appreciated that. It was like going to stay in your family’s house.”
At the time of their arrival, each family will be presented with a welcome basket complete with various goodies and offerings of discounts/services from local retailers, entertainment venues, movie theaters, spas and salons, restaurants, fitness centers and more.
“There were numerous restaurants that had donated opportunities to go have a meal with your family. We had Giant Food donate a huge amount of groceries and goods. Each family had a welcoming bag of groceries and all the essentials that you would need for the week.
“Even if you forgot anything, when you showed up, you had everything you needed to have a wonderful time with your family, and the town of Bethany Beach and the sponsors had provided that,” he said. “It was a wonderful time because of the lovely people who are involved in the organization. It’s wonderful to have a town with people and organizations that care enough to put an organization like this together.”
To kick off the week, VFW Post 7234 will host a welcome reception and Sea Colony management has offered to host a beach bonfire and cookout.
After many events during the week, including golf, concerts, paddleboarding, boating and fishing, there will be a farewell brunch at the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company’s fire hall.
One special memento that families received last year was a portrait on the beach.
“We have it up in our home now. Our moms and dads have it up in their houses now. It was a wonderful gift and memento to take home,” said Durham. “If you’re having a bad day or something, you can look at that portrait and remember the great time and the great people that care about you back here in Bethany Beach. It encapsulates you and takes you back to that time, to a fun time at the beach with your family.”
Durham added that one of his favorite activities during Warrior Week was when Charlie K’s held a barbecue lunch at their eatery.
“They had a bouncy house for the kids. It was wonderful. It was in the middle of the week. The families had made new friends with each other and helped support each other, and their kids were playing with each other,” he recalled.
“It’s always good to hear the laughter of children. Whatever your injury, your TBI or PTSD, missing a limb, whatever your handicap, it made you feel happy, because you heard children laughing and you were with good friends and people, having good food. It was just fantastic.”
This year, as alumni representatives, Durham and Jayne, along with the four other alumni families, will help with the week in whatever way they can.
“We have horses, and someone is donating therapeutic riding time,” said Durham. “My fiancée, one of her hobbies is photography, so she’s going to take pictures. I’m going to do everything from carry groceries to there are service dogs that come.
“Some of the soldiers have service dogs,” he explained. “Myself and my family, we’re going to babysit the service dogs a bit if the soldiers and their families would like. So they can go Jet-skiing or deep-sea fishing… We can keep their dog for them and allow them to enjoy water activities — kayaking, paddleboarding. Although one of the ladies had her service dog on a paddleboard last year...”
Durham was able to visit Bethany during the Fourth of July holiday to prepare for the September Warrior Week.
“I’m loving it. I’m getting to see some of the people I saw last year but in a different capacity. As an alumni representative, I get to talk to wonderful people and help spread the word. I’m going to some of the businesses that graciously supported us last year and continue to, and thanking them personally for their support, because it really does mean a lot,” he said, adding that he was able to enjoy some free time at the beach and hiking in the woods. “The dog’s on vacation, too. She’s enjoying time with other dogs.”
Durham said the beauty of Operation SEAs the Day was the acceptance and care that afforded the soldiers and their families the opportunity to heal in a peaceful and supportive environment.
“Obviously, we can’t take every family to the beach every year, but as they support each other, they’ll go back to their family, and family that have been in the military support them better — like a tree branching out. The roots are in Bethany Beach, but the leaves and everything will spread throughout other locations.
“All the people we met… we had individuals who were missing limbs, who had prosthesis, had scars and everything, and all the people just treated us as equals and accepted us for who we were. No one looked at any individual any differently. I think that helps the family heal.”
The weeklong respite is one that Durham said has forged many strong bonds between soldiers, their families and the local community that will only grow stronger.
“No, I didn’t know anybody, but I know a lot of people now. They’ve all been wonderful; I haven’t met a bad apple. Now I know people who live in Bethany Beach and I email them and talk to them on the phone. It was a vacation with long-lasting relationships. The other soldiers’ families who were here, my fiancée keeps in touch with the families we met here, and they support each other.
“Operation SEAs the Day may be a weeklong event but once you form those relationships and share the common experiences, it perpetuates itself into long-term bonds and a support network,” he added. “And it’ll just keep giving until we build, we hope, a big network of as much support as we can gather.”
Durham said he hopes that Operation SEAs the Day continues to give amazing support to soldiers and their families for years to come.
“My hope is that they get the same greeting that we got and leave a changed family like we did… That would be my hope,” said Durham. “I’m going to do everything in my power, and I know everyone else is also, to make sure that that happens. I want those families heal and go forth in life and do good things.”