By James Lea
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the aroma of good Carolina barbecue drifted from Indian Town along Highway 12, drawing Hatteras Islanders together to remember with respect the men and women of the military who have stood tall to defend America’s freedom and values. Many of them have fallen.
Many others, the nation’s wounded warriors, bear the scars of war for all their lives.
One of those wounded warriors, Gunnery Sergeant Juan Vasquez, Jr., was the Island’s guest of honor hosted by the barbecue’s sponsor, the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warrior Vacation Program (CHWWVP). Juan Vasquez is a career Marine based at Camp LeJuene in Jacksonville, NC. He enlisted in 2003 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded in heavy fighting around the city of Fallujah. He’s a tall man with an open and friendly manner, but it’s clear that choosing to annoy him would not be a wise choice.
Juan was nominated for the CHWWVP by the Jacksonville chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization of men and women of all uniform services who have been wounded in combat. He spent several days on Hatteras with his wife Veronica Ortiz Rivera and his children Alyssa, Andrew, and Anthony Ortiz Rivera and Kaleb Vasquez. They relaxed in an efficiency unit donated by the Cape Hatteras Motel, and they parasailed and jet skied and played on the beach and ate many wonderful things courtesy of local merchants. The family’s experience was, as Juan put it, amazing.
“I thought I knew something about southern hospitality,” he said, “but the people here have been exceptionally friendly and thoughtful. Getting away from the major military areas, like Jacksonville or Hampton Roads, to smaller towns has made me feel so valued and appreciated by people. For a military person, it’s really rejuvenating.”
The Cape Hatteras Wounded Warrior Vacation Program was created and is managed by Frisco landscaper John McGee and Buxton author and entrepreneur Kevin McCabe. Both are sons of Marine families. Several years ago, they reflected on the dismal experience of many military personnel returning from Vietnam and determined to find a way to salute their own dads by giving those returning from later wars a more welcoming reception.
They contacted Chapter 642 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in Jacksonville and with the chapter’s help set up the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warrior program. The MOPH chapter manages all Hatteras program funds with a designated bank account, accepts financial donations and writes checks for program expenses. The Hatteras program is not affiliated with the national Wounded Warrior Project.
John and Kevin, along with a number of other islanders, volunteer their time and very hard work. They say that the program would not be possible without the willing support of Hatteras businesses and individuals and their contributions of discounts, gift certificates, recreational facilities, housing in private homes and local motels, and cash. They especially applaud the volunteers who staffed this year’s Wounded Warriors benefit barbecue.
How is the program’s success measured? The most important metric is the enthusiastically positive response of some 25 Wounded Warriors and their families served by the program in its eight years. Gunnery Sergeant Vasquez is a good example – a warrior who so values his family’s weekend on Hatteras that he has committed to returning to base and actively promoting the program among other holders of the Purple Heart, even helping with fundraising to continue and expand it.
As long as Wounded Warriors and their families want to participate, and the Hatteras Island community continues its generous support, John and Kevin say they will continue to offer the CHWWVP. They’re considering additional funding mechanisms such as annual sustaining sponsorships, and the program will always be happy to accept tax-deductible checks made out to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, noted for the CHWW, and sent to P.O. Box 431 in Frisco, NC, 27936.
Juan Vasquez, John McGee, Kevin McCabe, and other Warriors and Islanders agree that the success of the Cape Hatteras Wounded Warriors Vacation Program is due in large part to the hospitality, friendliness, and respect for service and sacrifice that are characteristic of the people who call Hatteras Island home