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People send thank-you's and thoughts to soldiers overseas in all sorts of traditional ways: yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, care packages.'
But one Hilton Head Island resident wanted to offer something different, something few others could give as a gesture of gratitude to soldiers returning home from service in Afghanistan and Iraq: a free family vacation on the beach with no strings attached.'
"The mission of it really is to reconnect soldiers with their spouses and families after long deployments," said Grant Evans, who recently started Operation R&R. The organization provides a week of rest and relaxation in the Lowcountry for members of the military who are on leave and their families. Evans and his wife, Mia, are part-time residents of Long Cove Club and own short-term rental property on the island. '
"It's not a charitable thing. It's just our way of expressing our appreciation for what these families have been through," Evans said. "And not only the husbands. What I've come to appreciate is the sacrifice of the wives who are back here with four kids. Dad's gone for 15 months. Suddenly they have to become the father, the mother, the bread winner, the bill writer, the coach. It's stressful for everyone."'
Since offering up their own beach condo at the end of last year to be used free of charge by a few military families, the Evanses have convinced more than 50 other owners to contribute their beachfront homes and condos to the program during the off-season -- January through May and then September through December.'
Families are referred to Operation R&R by Richmond Hill's Baptist Church in Savannah or Fort Stewart, the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River.'
To date, 11 families from Georgia and as far away as North Dakota have had the chance to vacation in the Lowcountry thanks to Operation R&R. Nearly 30 more are scheduled to visit through mid-May.'
Though Evans said Operation R&R is in the process of becoming a 501(c)3, the organization is sponsored by Beach Properties of Hilton Head and Atlantic Community Bank. A bevy of local restaurants have come on board to offer free meals or discounts to the visiting families who receive an Operation R&R card upon their arrival to the island. Evans arranges for a host family to escort them to their condo at the beach and act as a contact for the visitors throughout their stay.'
"The generosity of this area combined with the fact that we have tons of condos that virtually sit empty most of the year combined with the fact that we are surrounded by military bases that happen to be a major percentage of the force in Iraq and Afghanistan made it an easy decision," Evans said. "Everything just came together."'
'What's the catch?''
When Leigh Kucharski heard that her family from Hinesville, Ga., was eligible to have a free week's stay on Hilton Head in February, she said her first thought was, "What's the catch?"'
"It sounded great, but I couldn't believe there were no strings attached," she said. "I wanted to make sure it was completely honest first. ... These people did something for us that we would have never been able to do for ourselves."'
Kucharski's husband, Brian, is a sergeant with the 37th Cavalry out of Fort Stewart and returned from a 10-month deployment to Iraq on Feb. 10. The next day, Kucharski surprised him with a trip to the Lowcountry. The pair were able to enjoy a few days on the island alone before bringing their three kids -- ages 1, 6 and 8 -- along for the rest of the paid vacation.'
"It was nice to have that connecting time together, but also with our family," Kucharski said. "Normally we would have just been home, so it was nice to be in a completely new setting. I think that's what my husband needed after fighting a war for 10 months."'
During their stay, the family enjoyed a lot of time on the beach and visited restaurants such as Sunrise Cafe, Steamers and Red Fish. One week later, Kucharski said her husband was back on a plane to Iraq for another 15-month deployment.'
"It was worse letting him go the second time," she said. "It was rough. But I'm so glad we had that time together. He was just so thankful that I went out of my way to make plans for his leave. I know I couldn't have done it without (Operation R&R's) help."