By Kelly Baughman

Military veterans and their families are a huge part of our community here along the Gulf Coast, and those who live the lifestyle and make the sacrifices know all too well that life can change drastically when faced with deployment.  Operation Reconnect aims to ease the pain of lost time for military veterans returning home by providing a stress-free, uninterrupted vacation for our heroes and those closest to them to enjoy.

Founder and Operation Reconnect President, Ryan Charrier, has experienced first-hand the strain that an overseas deployment can bring to a family as he serves in the Air Force and himself has been deployed several times.  “Time is everything.  I’ve been separated from my family for months at a time.  I’ve seen guys miss the birth of their children.  I’ve missed my kid’s first day of school, my anniversary….These are moments you never get back.  We as military go out and do what we do.  It’s the people left behind at home who have the toughest jobs.  The sacrifices they make are huge, so it’s important to reconnect with love ones and cherish every moment we can,” Charrier said. 

Charrier, a Missouri native who moved to the Perdido Key area in 1999, said the concept for Operation Reconnect came to him in 2015 after a conversation with co-worker, Tech. Sgt. Ken Campbell, where he learned that after 28 years of service in the Air Force and multiple deployments, he had never been able to take his family on a vacation.  Charrier knew several families with vacation homes in the area, and after making a few phone calls, he had secured one at no charge for Campbell and his family to use for a week upon his return home to his family.

Campbell’s wife broke down in tears, thanking Charrier for his kindness and for the opportunity to spend much needed and deserved family time together making memories without the stress or financial strain a typical vacation can sometimes bring.  “At that moment, I knew that was my purpose in life,” Charrier said.  And with that, Operation Reconnect was born.

In its first year in 2015, 33 veterans were given an all-expense paid seven day stay.  By 2017, that number grew to 100, and thanks to the hard work of Charrier and the support of the community, that number has risen to 300 in 2018.  Charrier expects that in 2019, Operation Reconnect will be serving around 500 families.

“Not only do we provide the veterans and their families with beautiful places to stay thanks to our generous friends and neighbors in our community, many local businesses have donated items to allow the families to explore and enjoy everything the area has to offer, and Operation Reconnect matches whatever donations are given to make sure these families have an experience that will leave a lasting impression and make their transition home that much easier,” he said.

As a non-profit organization, Operation Reconnect participates in fundraisers like the Flora-Bama Fishing Rodeo, World Food Championships, Rotary shrimp boils, but Charrier said it is the Fully Custom Jeep Giveaway that brings in the most revenue for the charity.  Last year’s “Jeep of Faith” giveaway raised enough money to provide for 300 families to vacation here on the Gulf Coast in 2018.  

This year’s project Jeep “Old Glory”, appropriately named after its American Flag themed paint job, is on display now at the Flora-Bama.  Tickets for the raffle giveaway, which will be held on Veterans Day November 11th, 2018, are on sale now.  1 ticket is $20, 6 tickets are $100, and 35 tickets are $500.  Tickets can be purchased online at www.operationreconnect.org or in the gift shop at the Flora-Bama.  100% of the proceeds will go directly to providing accommodations for deserving Operation Reconnect families.

“I will be taking the Jeep to Missouri State Fair this week where the dealership that provided it will have it on display for 430,000 people to see, and we hope to sell an overwhelming amount of raffle tickets that will help us keep Operation Reconnect growing,” Charrier said.

Thanks to all of his selfless efforts, in 2016, Charrier was awarded the United States Junior Chamber International’s Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award for his work with Operation Reconnect.  The award has been formally received by those like JFK, Nelson Rockefeller, Elvis Presley, four U.S. Presidents, and six Vice Presidents.  While Charrier is humbled by the honor, he said he is thankful for the recognition it brings to Operation Reconnect.  “It’s not about me.  But I am thankful that the award has allowed me a platform to promote what we do.  But to be in the company of those people is truly amazing,” Charrier said.

For Charrier, Operation Reconnect gives more than just a free vacation to give fellow returning veterans.  “I know the gift of time sounds cliché, but that’s what we do.  We give military families time to make up for that which they’ve lost without worry or interruption.  Being able to provide these families with memories that last a lifetime is an honor, and we do it on a personal level with the people and businesses in our community.  Without their efforts, none of this would be possible.”

If you, or someone you know would like to make a cash donation, provide a service, donate time in a vacation property to Operation Reconnect for the use of a returning veteran and their family, or would like to be considered as an Operation Reconnect family, visit www.operationreconnect.org.