BETHANY BEACH, Del. — Nicole Aguilar looked up at a pink impressionist Atlantic sunset and took a deep breath of ocean air. She blew it out.
“I still can’t exhale,” she said. “I’ll never be able to exhale.”
But this week, on the sand in Bethany Beach, will be the closest she’ll have come in a long time.
She’s the full-time caregiver to her beefy, tattooed 35-year-old husband, Vicente, an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a blast that rocked the Jordanian Embassy in Iraq in 2003. He was knocked down, then charged into the rubble and dragged injured people to safety. After Army doctors declared him A-okay, he was sent on two more deployments. Two more blasts destroyed him.
“He came back a different man. I’ll never have the man I married,” said Aguilar, 31.
Most of America has moved on from Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re all talking about Syria. But the military families broken by these long wars don’t get to move on.
They are stuck in endless doctor appointments, arguments over medical bills, surgery after surgery and all those looks they get at their prosthetics, their head scars, their paralyzed faces. Retirement at 28, with little hope of working or functioning again.
While most of us are guilty of forgetting about them, one small town is trying to remember this week. As beach resorts up and down the Eastern Seaboard snapped up the sand chairs and rolled in the ice cream shop awnings after Labor Day, Bethany Beach did something different.
People put out new signs: “Welcome Wounded Warriors!” “Thank You For Our Freedom!” “Welcome Military Families — Our Heroes.”
Small businesses donated gift baskets, kept the kayaks out, lined up 14 fishing boats, got the horses saddled up and the Jet Skis ready, and people opened their homes.
This week, 25 wounded veterans and their families are being treated like celebrities in this town. They wear VIF (Very Important Family) dog tags that get them free ice cream cones, lunches, golf games, spa treatments, and “thank you for your service” hat tips and handshakes.
Giant provided four bags of groceries to every family, the fancy restaurants in town are serving them free dinners and bike rentals are on the house.
It began when two friends — Diane Pohanka, 53, of Alexandria and Becky Johns, 55, of Bethany Beach — were talking one night about the struggle of military families. They didn’t really know any at the time, but they imagined the families coping with the trauma of hospitalization, mental anguish, financial strain and a life that went from deployment to injury to hospital.
Pohanka, a flight attendant, remembered a long talk she had about military families on a flight with a retired Rockville doctor, Richard Katon, 72.
She got in touch with him, and the three hatched a simple plan: Get a dozen or so fellow beach house owners to turn their vacation homes over to veterans and their families for a week. They advertised in the local paper for homeowners and worked with the United Service Organizations, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Wounded Warrior Project to find families.
Nearly 50 Bethany Beach residents offered their homes, and more than 70 military families applied. They decided 25 would be a manageable number the first year. They called it Operation Seas the Day.
Residents offered themselves up as hosts and guides. At their rousing organizational meeting Monday night, each volunteer was assigned a family. They all bonded immediately.
“We’re going to give them a date night,” said Bethesda part-timer Doreen Dalina, who kayaked, paddled, swam and played with one Army family’s six kids. On Friday night, she’s going to babysit while their parents go out.
The Aguilars and their two kids — Christian, 9, and Savannah, 7 — have been through a lot. Christian and Savannah cry every time their dad is loaded into an ambulance when his heart fibrillates and nearly stops. That’s happened seven times since April.
He takes the kids to school with his wife, then panics, screaming, an hour later, that the kids are lost.
They drove all the way from Georgia for this week.
“It took almost 12 hours,” Nicole said.
“I would’ve driven 18 for this,” said Vicente as he splashed out of a kayak with his son.
“We saw jellyfish!” Christian said, before a monologue on monsters, miniature golf and the ever-present reality that “My dad was blown up three times!”
Wounded veterans in wheelchairs or with prosthetic limbs get “thank-yous” often. At the mall. At the store. “Thank you for your service” eventually becomes saccharine. But for the veterans with internal wounds — traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder — all they get is, “He looks fine, why isn’t he working?” Nicole told me.
In Bethany Beach this week, it’s different. Residents see the dog tags and stop them, thank them, hug the kids.
Former Army truck driver Krislyn Kaukeano, 30, doesn’t mind that extra attention. She has kept her PTSD on the inside. On her first run in Iraq, her best friend was blown up. Kaukeano’s was the recovery vehicle. “They call us truck drivers IED detectors.”
She has delicate features, wore a flower behind her ear at the group barbecue Wednesday night and found people there who understand the severe psychological scarring that is hidden by her Jersey yoga girl exterior.
“There is no therapy like talking to someone else with PTSD,” she said.
At the welcome event, a local photographer donated those fancy family beach portraits you see on Christmas cards every year.
“I always wanted one where we’ll all wearing the same clothes,” one wife said. (A volunteer snuck out and bought them those matching outfits, just in time.)
To the sounds of a local musician singing “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems,” the warriors gathered. Lots of flag tattoos, a frightening skeleton on a forearm “for my 18 buddies who died,” one soldier said. There was talk of Syria. “A third war? Do we really need a third war?” one wife said.
After dinner, they sat around a bonfire. Brent Hendrix, 28, slowly negotiated the sand with his prosthetic leg, a friend at his side. He has had 74 surgeries since a roadside bomb nearly killed him in 2006.
This week at the beach — away from the antiseptic smell and fluorescent lights of the hospital — is his little break before surgery No. 75.
“Just to get away from Walter Reed and see all these guys with kids. With families. Moving on. It really helps,” said Hendrix, who hopes to return home to North Carolina after his latest stay at Walter Reed.
It’s not a complete exhale. Of course, these families will never get to exhale. But in Bethany Beach, they’ll breathe a little easier for just one week.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.