FORT STEWART, Ga. – It could not have been a more perfect day in Historic Downtown Savannah to have a day off to relax.
The sun was shining and the clouds were scarce as a soldier approached the front gate of a house with a green-filled yard and doors made of old wood and glass.
The American flag hanging from the rain gutter gently waved as a soft wind caressed the stars and stripes, almost as if to beckon the approaching soldier.
The old cobblestones beneath the soldier's shoes held not only the warmth from the sun, but each one contained traces of the area’s rich history.
This classic southern home turned bed and breakfast inn held a calm nature that seemed to grab hold of the soldier as he took every step towards the front door.
For the next 24 hours, this house would be a sanctuary for Sgt. Thomas Evans, an Infantry Squad Leader from Bravo Company, 1-64th Armor, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, and a native of Trenton, N.J., and Spc. Ahmad Saker, an Infantryman from 1-30th Infantry, 2nd BCT, 3rd ID, and a native of Baghdad, Iraq.
The Azalea Inn and Gardens, located in Historic Downtown Savannah, opened its doors and donated two rooms to Purple Heart Recipients from 2nd BCT and their significant other, April 11.
“About four years ago, I started participating in a program that’s run by a group of bed and breakfast inns,” said Teresa Jacobson, owner and operator of the Azalea Inn and Gardens. “It’s called ‘Better Way to Stay’ and every single Veteran’s Day, they ask every inn across America to donate one room to a soldier and their significant other on Veterans Day in honor of their service.”
“I tend to get a little excited, so the first time I heard about it, I gave away the whole inn,” Teresa said. “We have ten rooms. I also talked three other inns into joining me and they gave away all of their rooms. So, [for our] very first ‘Better Way to Stay’ Veteran’s Day, we had 36 rooms available. We also managed to talk a whole bunch of local restaurants into donating food to us, so we set it all up and all of the [participating] veterans came to this inn and had a spread of food. They didn’t even have to go out to dinner that night.”
“We continued it the next year,” said Teresa. “And then the third year, I spoke with a man from the Wounded Warrior Battalion. They got so excited and they sent me three people. The three men who stayed with me had all been wounded warriors. They stayed with me and shared their stories. I was so moved by their stories and their gratefulness.”
She went through the legal department of the military and got permission to create a Purple Heart respite and renewal program.
“For the last two years, we have opened our doors on the second Thursday of every month to Purple Heart recipients and their significant other,” said Teresa. “We also have gotten three different restaurants around town to give us vouchers so that the couple can go out to dinner.”
To Teresa and her husband, who both have personal ties to the military, opening their doors to the military is a small act.
“Both of us have a military connection,” said Teresa. “Our parents were in the military. I also served in the military and my sister served in the military. I was Army and she was Air Force. My father was in the Air Force. He did a 20-year career, so the military has always been really important to me and we have lived the sacrifices first hand.”
“I also grew up during the Vietnam War and so I know how unpopular the military can be and how much they need our support,” said Teresa. “For me this is a tiny drop compared to what [the soldiers] do for us.”
Evans was one of the soldiers invited to the R&R program and to stay for free at Teresa and Michael’s inn.
Evans is a Purple Heart Recipient who suffered injuries from an Improvised Explosive Device’s blast.
“It’s a retreat that was set up for wounded soldiers,” said Evans. “It is designed to give soldiers some [rest] and [relaxation] once they get back. It is a program that they run for free. The first hour is about a spiritual retreat, and the chaplain comes down. He does a spiritual seminar with you and after that you have time to spend with your family or by yourself, and you can just hang out for the weekend.”
This is the first retreat that Evans has ever participated in.
“I am excited,” said Evans. “I am looking forward to getting some time off, and just relaxing. After all of the medical appointments and everything at work, it will be nice to get a couple of days off.”
“I am as tough as they come except when I talk to these soldiers,” said Teresa.
“The biggest impact comes in the morning, when they have had a peaceful night away from their children, their everyday job, their stresses, and then they are sitting down having a relaxing breakfast,” said Teresa. “The soldiers sit down with the other guests and share their stories with people who have no idea what they do or have done for them. The other guests benefit by hearing stories that others may only read about or hear about on the news.”
“You are sitting here, talking to a soldier who has done enough to get a purple heart, and they are ordinary people with extraordinary courage,” said Teresa.