Operation Appreciation

Operation Appreciation

Celebrating 10 Years of Supporting Georgia Guard and Reserves 

Words by Marianne Leek
Photos by @ariskin 

 "It's about how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It's about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits that they've earned when they come home. It's about serving all of you as well as you've served the United States of America."
-- Barack Obama

America was founded on the principle of freedom, and since her inception our liberties have been safeguarded by our military service members who faithfully act as stewards of freedom and protectors of democracy. Service members in the Guard and Reserves are members of our communities and congregations; they are our family, friends, and coworkers. Many of us are reminded of their sacrifice on a regular basis and are compelled to thank them for their service. In 2012, Beth Waters, an Army spouse, along with three volunteers who shared a love of country,  community, and gratitude for those who serve, recognized an ever present need and established Operation Appreciation (OpA) as a resource for service members and veterans in the Georgia Guard and Reserves across all military branches. 

OpA was established to do just that—to be the exception by being in the position of saying yes to a support request when service members and veterans using other, more traditional, support programs are either denied or disqualified due to rank or tenure. Beth and Kevin Waters, her spouse and retired Army Guard veteran, have chosen to answer a calling by cultivating and sharing a sense of community and gratitude, while taking care of the immediate emotional, financial, and physical needs of these special service members. Beth and Kevin, along with their partners and volunteers, are a wellspring of kindness, empathy, and compassion, and have made it their life work to help those who have helped so many.

Beth explained why OpA chose to focus its mission on specifically supporting service members and veterans of the Georgia Guard and Reserves: “When an individual joins the military as a full-time service member, they are typically stationed on base and have medical coverage, housing, payroll, and many other benefits. All resources for support are readily available to the service member and their family. However, when an individual joins the Guard or Reserves, their service is considered part-time. They do not have insurance or on-post housing available, as they only drill one weekend a month and two weeks annually for training. These Citizen Soldiers live, work, and play in our communities. They typically have civilian jobs with civilian benefits. Their family members are oftentimes unfamiliar with military resources and may not even live near a military base or institution. OpA was established to be an available resource for our Civilian Soldiers without applications, civilian employment, or rank consideration. We are here to cover down any mental and/or physical recovery needs.”

OpA has provided assistance for service members, veterans, and their families for the past ten years in the form of “care packages, emergency requisition, forward and rear detachment unit support, chaplain support, reintegration retreats, and more. OpA has remodeled homes to accommodate disabilities by working with local builders and individuals willing to donate their time and professional services.” It has also “assisted from beginning to end with multiple funerals. Our support has included coordination with funeral homes, cemeteries, printing materials, music, family support, fundraising, memorials, services, photo slideshows, clothing for immediate family members, flowers, and more. We literally step in and allow the service member time to grieve and be with family without the worry of finances and details from the funeral process.” 

In 2016 OpA grew to include a cabin, aptly named Red, White, and Bear, “with the anticipation of providing brief retreats for urgent intervention during post-deployment reintegration,” available for active service members, veterans, and their families at no cost. Tucked away in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, it provides guests with stunning mountain vistas from its wrap-around porches and outdoor spaces, as well as endless opportunities to enjoy and connect with nature. Red, White, and Bear offers families a place to reflect, connect, and heal—a tranquil respite from the world. Beth elaborated on why a restorative space such as the Red, White, and Bear cabin is so beneficial for service members and their families: “Mental support is one of the greatest needs for our service members. Many times they will carry burdens that they don’t often share with people. Having the opportunity to reconnect with your family in a small area, forces you to connect, to talk, to communicate, and it opens bridges of communication that otherwise would have never happened.” 

Stephanie Kayhan expressed what staying at this mountain-top oasis meant to her and her son: “My son and I were so fortunate to be able to spend a week at Red, White, and Bear with Beth and Kevin Waters. We were welcomed with open arms and immediately. The second we pulled into the driveway, we were taken care of with the understood notion that everyone needs a place of respite and to be taken in and cared for without any judgment. . . . I truly was able to relax, decompress, and gain perspective on my life while I was there. I left feeling refreshed and renewed and with my heart full. What a lovely gift the Waters give their guests! Red, White, and Bear is a place that is so good for the soul. I loved every second there.”

In addition to offering mountain retreats for service members and their immediate families, OpA partners with Humble Warrior Wellness & Yoga to host six annual female veteran health and wellness retreats. The focus is to create a strong community of women and to help them “learn ways to mentally and physically transition from boots to loafers. Our focus is on mental transition through journaling, intense group discussions, yoga, plant-based dieting, team building, and meditation. It is critical to show our female veterans that there is a community of support available for them to discuss the realities of service vs. civilian lives.” 

There is no doubt that OpA and the Red, White, and Bear cabin have enriched the lives of and provided crisis intervention to thousands of service members and their families, but when asked what OpA has meant to Beth and Kevin Waters, their response was as simple as it was profound. They remain selflessly committed to extending support and opening their hearts to the Guard and Reserve service members and veterans in their Georgia communities: “It is an honor to be there for those that wear the uniform in their time of need. It is humbling to see, time and time again, how each service member remains prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their country, their fellow service member, their families, yet they do not seek attention or recognition independently. Kevin and I are more than blessed to witness an unburdening of their weight for a moment’s peace and relaxation while here at Red, White, and Bear. It is truly our greatest honor to meet some of our nation’s heroes.”