A fleeting notion as he watched news footage of local troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 has nearly become a full-time job for Dr. Grant Evans.
Hilton Head Island nonprofit group Operation R&R, which Evans created in January 2008, offers "virtually free" vacations on the island for area active-duty service members and their families. It began its fourth season of giving last weekend, much to the surprise and delight of its founder.
"I've been on Fox News and CBS and given hundreds of talks, and I always say the same thing: 'This whole thing was just supposed to be two or three military families staying at our condo at Long Cove,' " said Evans, a chiropractor in Columbus, Ohio. "Since then, we've been able to host 800 military families who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford a vacation on Hilton Head."
Since offering his own beach condo for free to those first few military families, Evans and the group's other members have persuaded more than 400 individual owners and 13 short-term management companies on Hilton Head to contribute their beachfront homes and condos to the program during the off-season, September through May.
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The group also has recruited 60 local restaurants and about 35 other businesses, including those offering bike and watersports rentals, to provide meals, goods and entertainment for the visiting families at little or no cost, Evans said.
The program is for active-duty service members from Hunter Army Airfield, Fort Stewart and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort who have recently returned from deployment. Last year, it began hosting families of local service members killed in action, Evans said.
Evans said the mission is to help military families reconnect.
"There are a lot of reintegration issues with our service members who are returning from deployment," Evans said. "The divorce rate in the Army alone is nearly double the national average, and we think we can help."
Organizers said the program is on track for a record year and plans to host more than 50 families in October alone.