Giving back to those who serve

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
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By Ron Eland

North Hawaii News

For more than 20 years, Jeremiah Walker has served his country well. And this past weekend, dozens of people he had never met before said ‘mahalo.’

Walker — an Army sergeant stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oahu — and his family were guests of a Kohala-based Operation Vacation. The project provides Hawaii-based soldiers who have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan and their families all-expense paid mini-adventure vacations to the Hawi/Kapaau area.

“This means a lot to me and my family,” Walker said Saturday. “My wife works hard as well so it was nice for us all to take a break. And the hospitality everyone’s shown has just been great.”

His wife, Audra, agreed.

“I think this project is really great,” she said. “I really appreciate all the people who helped make this happen. And for us to have this time with our daughter (Alaysha) means a lot to us.”

Walker joined the Army nearly 21 years ago and has had two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan — where he’ll be returning to early next year. Each deployment lasts a year.

“It’s pretty interesting over there,” he said. “You go over there with certain expectations or you may have a preconceived idea of what it will be like. Then you meet the people and you realize they want a normal life just like us. You can really sympathize with them.”

The Walkers arrived from Oahu Friday morning and stayed until Monday afternoon. Their visit was filled with a variety of activities and meals, all of which were provided by Kohala merchants and organizations. The visit included a luau with the Kohala Lions Club, sightseeing, horse riding lessons at Hawaii Paso Finos Horse Ranch, and something none of them had done — ziplining — with the crew from Big Island Eco-Adventure Tours.

“That was great,” Walker said with a wide grin. “That’s definitely something we never thought we’d do. Great family fun,”

Operation Vacation was started in 2005 by Colorado resident Bob Johnson as a way to give a little something back to the men and women who defend this country. Joe Vitorino, who along with his wife Kelly own Hawaii Paso Finos Horse Ranch, read about the program in a magazine and thought it was a great idea. Having served in the Navy for six years, he said he knew what it was like for those in the military to be away from their families for long stretches of time. But at the time, the Vitorinos were spending part of the year here on the island and the rest in California.

“I thought it would be great to do something here in Kohala but the timing wasn’t right,” he said.

The Vitorinos moved to the Big Island full time four years ago and the thought of starting a soldier program was still on his mind.

“There’s so much energy here. I couldn’t help but think this would be a perfect place for something like that,” he said. “So, last year I started talking with other adventure tours here in the area and told them what I wanted to do.

“We want to keep each visit fresh. We get a feel from each merchant as to how much they’re willing to do each year because we don’t want to be a burden for any of these businesses.”

He said the toughest part was getting a rental car company to agree to take part as well as an airline. Soon, Alamo agreed to come aboard and things began to “snowball” from there. Hawaiian Airlines agreed to do the two vacations last year (from Oahu) but isn’t doing it this year. So, airfare is covered by donations from the public.

Another key hurdle they were able to get over was getting the blessing from Johnson in order to use the name and be under its non-profit status umbrella.

“At that point everything was coming together so it was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Vitorino said.

The first vacation happened over last year’s July 4 weekend in which Maj. Kerry Dennard and his family were guests. That was followed over Veteran’s Day weekend with Sgt. Mark Aquino, his wife and daughter. The first vacation this year went to Sgt. Paul Angeleo in late April. In addition tot he Walker’s visit, Vitorino said they have two more scheduled later in the year.

“When Maj. Dennard was here he said there were no words to describe how he felt,” he said. “He told me he was blown away with how welcomed he felt here and how the community made them feel so at home.”

Vitorino said he’s been working with various military bases around the state such as Schofield Barracks on Oahu as well as Pohakuloa Training Area, here on the Big Island. The soldiers are chosen by the bases and the only guidelines are that if they have children, they are old enough to take part in the various outdoor activities offered and that they served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the 14 months since the first vacation occurred, more than 20 businesses and organizations have stepped forward and agreed to take part in Operation Vacation including Alyssa Slaven and Bobi Moreno.

“It’s a very worth-while cause,” said Slaven, owner of King’s View Cafe. “My husband is a retired Marine so I think it’s awesome that these people get to come here and enjoy our great community. I feel kind of patriotic doing this. In some small way we’re helping and giving back to those who have served our country. So, we’ll always support this project as long as Joe’s doing it.”

Moreno, owner of Kohala Country Adventures Guesthouse, agreed.

“First off I’m happy to help Joe and his wife in any project they do,” she said. “Secondly, my son has been to Iraq so I’m happy to help and want to see the service people be given our aloha and help them to have a vacation their family will never forget. I appreciate their dedication and everything they do so it’s a wonderful feeling being able to help.”

For more information on Operation Vacation, contact Vitorino at 884-5625.