Last week, 25 military veterans and their families bid adieu to Bethany Beach, after spending a “magical” week at the beach.
Operation SEAs the Day was a weeklong event organized for, according to the organization’s website, “our Wounded Soldiers and their families, as a means of sharing our appreciation for their service and sacrifice. … It is our hope that such a community gesture of support will be comforting and help ease their transition back into civilian life.”
“The whole idea came from two very, very dynamic women who live here — Diane Pohanka and Becky Johns,” said Bill Gay, who helped organize the week. “They were talking about how hard it must be for military families, where the warrior is injured, to live a full life. They came up with the idea of having these families come for a week at the beach.”
With hard work and many contributions from the community, 25 “Very Important Families,” or “VIFs,” comprising 40 children, 60 adults and four service dogs, were welcomed to Bethany Beach.
The USO, Wounded Warrior Project and Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes recruited the wounded veterans and their families from the Mid-Atlantic region to attend the event and offered financial assist to help them travel to Bethany.
Gay said that Operation SEAs the Day defines family in broadest sense, so that the wounded warriors could include family members who weren’t necessarily of blood relation.
“We wrote up a very simple application, with the broadest definition of family,” he said. “In this case, your family is anyone who helped you through your hardest times. Sometimes it was spouse and kids. Sometimes it was also mom and dad. Sometimes it was also brother or sister. Sometimes it was a good friend. The families were all different. We defined family as whoever helped you during your hard times.”
Gay said organizers wanted to focus on the families, because they found that many events did not always include family members.
“And the VIFs told us that, too,” he said. “The reason that is so important is that it is now officially recognized that there’s secondary post-traumatic stress disorder for the wives and children because they’re living in a small town where there is no other military family around them. And folks just don’t recognize what it’s like to have to worry about your dad leaving the stove on because of his [traumatic brain injury].”
During their stay in Bethany, each family was given their own home to stay in, free of charge, donated for the week by local homeowners.
“The community stepped up in a way that we never could have anticipated,” Gay said.
Bethany resident Peggy Fechnay offered her home for the week to a husband and wife, and their six kids.
“The family that came didn’t know they were in a house that was right on the beach. When you walk in, you can see the ocean from the living room, and the soldier, he just started crying. He was so emotional and gave me a big hug. They were just so amazed and so happy.”
Gay said about 30 local families also volunteered to serve as hosts to the VIFs — helping them with whatever they might need and providing a welcome basket with information and gift certificates for area businesses.
“They were paired up with one of the Very Important Families as they came in, showed them around town, gave them advice on how to use the various offers from local businesses. Sometimes they did a lot with the family, and sometimes the family was just so amazed by the beauty of the beach that they just wanted to spend time alone, healing and bonding.”
Middlesex Beach resident George Treadway, a Korean War veteran who served in the Army’s Signal Corps, and his wife, Madelyn, hosted a family from Harrisonburg, Va.
“He was an air rescue ranger who was wounded soldier. He’d been shot several times and had a head wound. He has seizures. He has a service dog that senses when he’s going to have a seizure and goes and gets help. His wife … is an army major. She has been deployed three times in these recent wars to Afghanistan and Iraq,” Treadway said. “We felt quite honored to do this.”
South Bethany resident Pat Hendrickson also volunteered to help co-host a VIF during their weeklong stay.
“I wasn’t even sure what to expect. It was very emotional, very rewarding. It’s hard to describe,” she said. “The best part was to be able to see the transformation of the family. The very first day, they were worn out, looked like they weren’t really sure to expect, not a lot of smiles. By the third day, when they were Jet Skiing, it was a complete transformation. They were smiling and relaxed, and just having a great time. It was more than I could have ever imagined.”
Gay said that, not only did residents give of their homes and time, but many approached the organization to see how they could help.
Brian Emery, the president of the Bay Colony Marina, who served in the Air Force, heard about the event while out to dinner with friends.
“We had not heard about the event,” Emery said. “I thought right then, a great thing to do would be to offer these folks a boat ride and a fishing trip while they were here.”
Emery sent out an email to all the slip owners and renters in the marina, explaining the event, and requested volunteers.
“I was amazed when I ended up with 14 boat captains who said they’d love to take folks out to do whatever they wanted — a little cruise, or fishing, or go out to lunch,” he said. “Every trip was different. One captain had a very large pontoon and took families out swimming, tubing and fishing. Some captains just went out for little fishing trips or sightseeing tours around the bay.”
Dubbed the “Bethany Beach Navy” by organizers, Emery and his crew of captains took 20 of the 25 VIFs for boat rides.
“One captain took two father-and-son teams out together. In one case, it was the wounded father and his 13-year-old son. The other pair was a wounded 24-year-old warrior and his dad. They went out on an ocean fishing trip and had a wonderful day. Everybody claimed they had a wonderful time while they were on the boats.”
Emery said that he felt compelled to participate and is already looking forward to next year’s event.
“It was such a sense of wanting to help and pitch in on what turned out to be an exceptional week, to help these guys and gals who have given so much for us. Having been in the military myself, I know they don’t have a lot of money. They are living, in some cases, week to week. Some are on food stamps. To be able to give them a free week was just a wonderful idea.
“I think I must have been hit with the same feeling that must have occurred in all of the people who participated,” he continued. “These folks are going through hell, you know, these wounded families. They don’t have a lot of money. They are dealing with severe trauma. Just like everybody else I spoke to in the marina, there was no question on anybody’s mind that it would be a good thing to do, to give these folks a little bit of a break from the difficulties they’re facing.”
Dave Rogers, owner of Charlie K’s BBQ, has annually held an end-of-the-season fundraiser for Friends of the Fallen, a community-based volunteer group that provides service and assistance to families who come to Dover Air Force Base to witness the dignified transfer of their loved ones. When Rogers heard about Operation SEAs the Day, he said, he knew immediately he wanted to get involved.
“I saw it as a good way for the community to rally around the people who serve our country voluntarily. They come back, have issues and problems, and if we can take them away from that for a little while, I think it’s a good thing. I just like to give back, especially to the servicemen and -women. Sometimes I think they get a bit of a raw deal when they get home.”
Rogers held his annual fundraiser but also held a free barbecue lunch for the VIFs, along with a moon bounce, animal balloons and a magician.
“Millville Fire Company brought a truck up so the kicks could climb on it, ring the bell. I sponsor a couple of racecars, and they were up there, and the kids climbed in them and got their pictures taken. That was a lot of fun.”
Rogers said that to visually see the impact of his support was an emotional experience that he’ll never forget.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” said Rogers. “I was elated, but at the same time heartbroken. It was a one-day deal, and these people need more help. But at least for one day, maybe we could take their problems and put them aside for a little while. It was really touching to see how the families had held together, how they’ve supported each other. It was very gratifying and humbling all at the same time.”
“It was very overwhelming to see these people managing and doing their daily activities,” added Treadway. “We had amputees and that sort of thing. In our daily routine, we don’t see this, and this experience brought it to mind in a very vivid way.”
Gay said that many other businesses followed suit, donating to the welcome baskets that went into each VIF’s home.
“We went to Giant Food to ask if they could just donate a breakfast bag for the first morning everyone was here, so they wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to eat. Giant Food gave us overflowing bags with fruits and snacks, insulated bags with milk and juice. Ocean Air Produce came back to town with beautiful wicker baskets overflowing with local fruits and vegetables.”
Other businesses gave coupons and free services to the VIFs during the week.
“The town rose up with such generosity, it was incredible,” he said. “Bad Hair Day Spa up in Rehoboth sent down a limo bus and brought all of the women up to Rehoboth and gave them haircuts, stylings, manicures, facials, massages, pedicures. They served sandwiches and champagne. All of the women bonded. So many said, ‘Suddenly we were talking with the other wives, and we didn’t even have to complete our sentences. We all knew what our husbands were going through when our husbands went into depressions.’”
He added that, in many cases, when families presented the discount coupons to businesses, they were refused — everything was on the house.
“One night, a group of the kids went over to Armand’s. The coupon in no way covered two adults and eight kids. The owner came out and he just said, ‘Don’t worry about it. The rest of the meal is on us.’ I mean, how often do people do stuff like that?” added Fechnay. “The generosity of the community was just overwhelming. It was magnificent — so positive and uplifting.”
Gay said that there were “so many wonderful stories” from the week of families.
“Arnie’s Arcade opened up the arcade for us. They gave all the kids cups of quarters to spend. The kids just went crazy. I saw this one young girl — she was putting her $5 bill into the coin machine to get more coins. The attendant there said, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ She said, ‘No, no, no — I want to make sure there’s enough coins for everybody.’
“At the end of the night, she turned in her tickets and she had 120 points. He said, ‘Yep 300 points. It wasn’t very obvious how many points each of the prizes cost. So, she’s looking around at different things and she fell in love with this little artificial aquarium with artificial fish that light up. It was 1,500 points. She asked, ‘Do I have enough points for that?’ And he said, ‘You absolutely do,’ and gave her the aquarium.”
Gay said that, even in a playful atmosphere like the arcade, you could still see the soldier come out in the veterans.
“One dad was in there with his kids and playing around, and he walks over to one of those shooter games. He picks up the electronic pistol, goes into a combat stance automatically. And with the game on the most difficult setting, he beat it with a perfect score. I happened to see it out of the corner of my eye, and I said, ‘That was your job wasn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that was my job.’ A lot of these things run deep.”
Gay said that, during the week, two couples decided to renew their wedding vows.
“They decided that this was such a beautiful place, and the town had been so warm and welcoming, that they renewed their vows while they were here,” he said. “In both cases, the warrior had been badly, badly injured and had already gone through several years of very hard financial struggles and emotional struggles recovering.”
One of those couples was the family staying in Fechnay’s home, and she was able to witness the proposal.
“They were down on the beach at a Sea Colony event and he drew this big heart in the sand, got down on one knee and proposed to her and said, ‘Will you marry me again?’ It was done at the house, in our back yard, where you can see the ocean. It was so romantic, it really was,” Fechnay said.
“We put chairs out, and they invited another soldier who they were friends with, and his wife and their kids. We got her a dress at Shabby Lady, and the Shabby Lady gave her a necklace to wear. It was just so awesome. It was great to be a part of that.”
The Rev. Mary L. Allen from Bethany’s Saint Martha’s Episcopal Church officiated both ceremonies.
“Bill Gay is a member of my parish, and he called me and asked me if I was available,” she said. “We had members of the parish, people in the congregation who were helping with the program, as well, and it was really wonderful. I jumped at the chance when he called. I’ve done vow renewals in my congregation several times, and it’s something I enjoy doing anyway. I just thought it was a wonderful way for me to be a part of Operation SEAs the Day, other than promoting it within the congregation.”
Allen, who remembers the draft for the Vietnam War, said that supporting the troops and their families is essential.
“I think it’s a really wonderful opportunity for a larger community to see the long-term issues we have as a result of combat duty. I’m a post-Vietnam person. My class in high school was the last class to be in the draft, and I saw how we treated vets coming back from Vietnam, and I never want to see that happen again.
“I find it personally important to me that we’re supportive of our military returning. There are issues that we don’t see. Their wounds are not visible wounds, but they’re nonetheless issues that come with having served in armed conflict. The church is at its best when it is a part of the community and responsive to the community.”
Gay, who is a combat-wounded veteran from the Vietnam War, said that the importance of supporting the troops and their families is critical.
“The warriors aren’t looking for charity. They’re looking for people who will support them on their journey to recovery. Not a family here was looking for any pity. These are families that are strong and fighting hard to make sure they can live the fullest life possible, despite whatever physical or emotional handicap they have picked up. Those who have artificial limbs will have those for the rest of their lives. Those who have [traumatic brain injuries] will have those scars for the rest of their lives,” he said. “We have to support them.”
Rick Haden — a Marine Corps veteran and director of the House of David Foundation, which was created to educate the public and raise funds for veterans organizations, and also to engage the wounded warriors — agreed.
“We all get caught up in our own lives, and that’s so natural for us to only think about what’s happening in my world, with my family. We have to think about others and take into consideration that these people are volunteers who go off to war and have become incapacitated physically, psychologically or a combination, for us.
“Christ came on the cross and died for us,” Haden continued. “He put his life up for us, and if someone dies and gives up their life for you, you have to have some sort of appreciation for that. These people in the military have willingly put their lives on the line. … We need to show some sort of appreciation for what they’ve done for us. The least we can do is provide some of our time. It’s important for us, as people, to take care of other people. We need to do that.”
Haden, who donated free stand-up paddleboard lessons to the VIFs, was one of many area residents who donated to the event. John Mutz, owner of Indian River Water Sports, offered each family a free opportunity to cruise the Indian River Bay on personal watercraft.
“When we heard about Operation SEAs the Day and their goal to provide veterans with a stress-free vacation, we wanted to do it, because we see all the fun our customers have each day, and we wanted to share that joy with the veterans and their families,” he explained.
“While these people were away from their families, we were enjoying this town with our families. Now that they’re home, to be able to share the town with them and everything that is great about our area… their sacrifices are the reason why we have everything that we do. It was something we didn’t think twice about.”
Mutz said it was a neat experience to see all the families let loose and have a good time. There was one instance, in particular, that stood out for Mutz, involving a veteran and his six children.
“A few of his kids were a little nervous out there and, as we started to come back in, we saw the dolphins, and the kids totally let go of all their fears and were giggling and laughing,” he recalled. “They reached out to touch them — they were close enough that it looked like they could, but they didn’t. They just had a blast, and we spent about a half an hour just idling around, with the dolphins jumping out of the water right next to the kids. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get that close… It was pretty incredible.”
The beach week, which ended on Sept. 8, has been deemed a huge success.
“There’s that old cliché, we had good luck,” said Gay. “Good luck results from a good plan and lots and lots of hard work. We put together the best plan we could and worked as hard as we could. The homeowners who donated their homes, many of them were talking continuously with the local hosts and, by the end of the week, were referring to ‘our family,’ that the two of them were sharing something special.”
“Everything that was done associated with this, from start to finish, just fell into place so perfectly, including the weather we had that week,” said Emery. “This had some divine guidance, I’m certain. There was hardly a glitch along the way. It was just something special that was meant to be.”
Following the successful week, Gay said the organization has already been contacted by other organizations looking to support the cause.
“From an idea hatched by two friends on the beach, it eventually grew into hundreds of people. There were members of this community that, anonymously, without hesitation, stepped up and made donations for the families to offset the cost for the travel the long distance,” he said.
“We’ve already been contacted by three towns that have asked us would we advise them on how to set up a beach week like this. We would just be thrilled to help them, and if the unexpected consequence of this is that we’ve started a national movement, then you’d never see us stop crying.”
This year’s participants said they will definitely be involved in next year’s event.
“It was a week that we’ll never forget,” said Treadway. “It’s a wonderful experience. You see a side of life that’s not ordinary. It’s nice to be a part of something that’s really terrifically good.”
“Definitely get involved,” urged Fechnay. “There’s so much that can be done in so many different ways. If you’ve got a little bit of time or a lot of time, you can do something and make a difference.”
According to Gay, not only were the volunteers touched by the community’s outpour of support, but so were the VIFs.
“Three said they thought the beach was such a healing experience, that they would come back to try to find a place to live and look for jobs,” he said.
“One of the soldiers said, ‘I’m going to come back here every vacation — this has just been great,’” added Fechnay.
“People who didn’t get involved this year missed a tremendous opportunity to do something special for people who are so deserving,” added Emery. “Every captain I spoke with afterwards was just so full of good feelings and thrilled they had made the acquaintance of all these people who were so nice.
“Everybody who took any of these families under their wing for either a boat trip or acted as a host, we all ended up with new friends. These people were all so grateful for everything that was done for them and were so happy while they were here.”
Hendrickson said the experience was truly life changing and that she hopes the community will now be more aware of all those around them and treat them with kindness and respect.
“Living where we live, I don’t see this on a regular basis, because we’re not surrounded by military people in my community, but there are a lot of people out there that we don’t even realize are war veterans,” said Hendrickson.
“I think, every single day, we need to remember to treat other people with true consideration, not knowing where they’ve been or what they’ve done in their lives. We need to show patience and compassion every single day, to everybody we bump into, because you never know who they are or what they’ve done.”
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.