NEWS

A hero’s welcome: Northwest Florida community unites to host warrior beach retreat

Savannah Chastain
Participants of the Warrior Beach Retreat are met at the airport by veterans and slews of welcoming supporters.

Linda Cope remembers the exact date she got the news; November 13, 2006. Her son, who had been serving in Baghdad Iraq, had been injured resulting in the amputation of both legs and irreversible damage to both hands.

From that day forward, Cope made it her mission to give wounded warriors and their spouses or caregivers a chance to rest and reconnect, and above all get the heroes welcome they deserve.

“We just saw what his family went through,” said Cope of her son and his wife and three children. “It’s a journey especially for the caregiver. They need to know that they are special.”

Two years after her son’s injury, Cope founded the Warrior Beach Retreat, a non-profit organization based in Panama City that offers a weeklong vacation to about 100 couples a year with the chance to get away from the demands of daily life, and receive pampering and time to re-invest in one another.

“It’s the husbands and the wives, and basically they are coming without kids or doctors appointments so that they can reconnect as a couple,” she said. “For some of them it is the first time for them to come together and get used to their new normal.”

The Warrior Beach Retreat is a local non-profit, un-affiliated with the national non-profit, the Wounded Warrior Project.

“Our version is also for the caregiver,” said Cope of her organization. “We focus not only on the wounded warrior but also the caregiver; they are the unsung heroes of war.”

 This year marks the sixth year of the Warrior Beach Retreat, which happens in the spring and fall of each year. The fall retreat will run Sept. 16-23.

“The whole community puts it on,” said Cope. “We have no blueprint to follow; it’s put on by the community of Northwest Florida coming together.”

Every retreat begins with a hero’s welcome starting the minute the couples get off the plane. Each soldier is saluted by a retired veteran and then as they leave the airport, crowds of people line the street with flags and signs leading the way to the lodging.

“They are out here by the thousands lining the streets for this event,” said Cope of the crowds of cheering bystanders. “We had over 550 motorcycles line the street last time, they actually ride in the escort with us. People even come from other states to be a part of this; it’s a really amazing thing.” 

This year, Panama City Toyota is donating vehicles and gas for the couples to drive while they visit, complete with the name and rank of the warriors on the side of each car. The Grand Panama is donating condos, the Hilton Sandestin Resort Spa will be donating treatments for a lady’s pampering day Sept. 19, and numerous local businesses are chipping in to honor the group.

“They have a participant card and they show it everywhere,” said Cope. “At local restaurants, Gulf World, Ripley’s…they get in for free.”

 Cope said that adjusting to life after returning from war can be a challenge; one many veterans feel that they face alone. But with the warrior retreat, couples have a chance to meet up with others going through the same emotional journey.

“They find people with a personality that they can connect with and finally they have a support group,” she said. “This is a lifeline; they don’t have to be alone anymore.

During the week, retired Air Force Chaplin Major General Charles Baldwin will be on-hand for counseling, as well as to give a public address for the retreat’s opening ceremony.

 “It is life changing,” said Cope. “This is grassroots America at its finest.”

  For more information on donating to the event or to find times for the welcoming parade and the public meet and greet visit www.warriorbeachretreat.org.