Even heroes need a break. That’s why Brandi Tramazzo founded an organization nearly five years ago to give active military members an opportunity to reunite with their families on vacations in the paradise of Marco Island.
“They sacrifice their lives for their country and it’s important that they know their community supports them too,” said Cyndi Bixler, a BT Hero House board member.
Tramazzo established the 501-C3, BT Hero House Foundation for Recovering Warriors, in 2015 with the goal of purchasing homes where active military members and their families could take week-long vacations to reunite after long times of separation due to deployment.
Her ultimate goal is to have such a home on Marco Island, such as a condominium at Riverside Club, she said, which allows more frequent rentals than many condo and homeowners’ associations on the Island. The goal is to raise $300,000 for such a purchase.
Currently, vacations are offered through donated weekly rentals on Marco Island and other areas throughout the country.
Tramazzo recently purchased her first property for the Foundation in Blackwater, Missouri and is readying it for a middle-American vacation spot to offer service members. The historic building on Main Street of this small town is undergoing renovations, she said.
Vacations are awarded to service members who have been nominated by their first sergeants, said Tramazzo.
“Nobody knows the soldier better than the first sergeant. It’s [the first sergeant’s] job to be sure that they’re safe and their home life and family life is as good as it can be… so they can focus when they’re deployed,” she said.
The service members are selected for their exemplary service, going above and beyond in their day-to-day actions that may otherwise go unrewarded. Another determining factor of their selection is for being among the most in need of reconnecting to their family due to the length and frequency of their deployments.
“Service members protect us and we need to stand up and protect them too—protect their family life, protect their mental health—with gratitude,” said Tramazzo.
BT Hero House has offered about 20 such family vacations thus far, and was slowed down only in 2017 due to Hurricane Irma, said Tramazzo.
The Marco Island vacations cost about $2,500 and include everything from a travel stipend to help get the family to Marco Island, to accommodations, dining packages and event tickets.
“Everything is taken care of. Everything is provided. All you have to do is show up,” said Heather Smith, 26, among the recent Marco Island military family visitors.
She and her husband, Bailey, 25, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, along with their son Rowen and daughter Logan, very much needed to reconnect, said Heather.
Her husband had missed the birth of their first child and then was gone for the first five or six months of the second child’s life.
“For them, it was like meeting each other all over again,” she said of father and daughter.
The family, originally from California, drove down from the Florida Panhandle to visit Marco Island for the first time.
“We had never heard of Marco Island or the Foundation… We had an absolute blast. We talk about it all the time,” Heather said.
The Juarez family also visited Marco this summer, gifted with a vacation that the Army family says they will never forget.
Sgt. Major Josh Juarez, 20, and wife Nicole, 21, have two young children, Anthony, 1, and Stephanie, 2. The couple just learned they’re expecting their third child. Josh is on a mission that will keep him in Germany for almost nine months.
“Next summer, I’m about to skedaddle on down to Texas. It’s going to be close,” he said.
These separations and the demands of military life can destroy families, said Juarez.
“That trip to Marco Island was beyond what words can describe. Probably my favorite part was the zoo,” he said, recalling his children enjoying feeding lettuce to the giraffe.
Other highlights of the Marco Island and Naples area vacations are Naples Botanical Garden tours; dolphin sightings; adventures with alligators; throwing the first puck for the Florida Everblades and other such events made possible by supporters, such as the Boat House Motel, Marco Island Water Sports, Rose Marina and several others.
BT Hero House is unique in their offering support of military members who are still healthy and actively serving.
Tramazzo established the Foundation inspired to act after 9/11. It started with gathering socks for emergency responders immediately following those attacks.
“Knowing our military was our only defense, or best defense, really grew my appreciation for the military,” said Tramazzo, who was already a supporter as an ancestor of the founders of Wentworth Military Academy in Missouri.
“It was just a welling up of patriotism, love for the country, love for the military… As a country, we were all drawn together for unity,” she said, adding that she’d like a return to such unity but without the disaster.
In the years following the attacks, her support went from socks to larger and varying endeavors, landing on a vacation home opportunity when she learned that the days of one deployment per career were long over and that many service members were gone from their families almost all the time.
“We’re expecting so much more out of these men than we did 30, 40, 50 years ago. We’re expecting so much more out of these spouses and the kids,” she said.
“When you’re in the military, you’re in 100 percent—that means your spouse and your kids as well,” said Tramazzo.
“Many military children go to bed on Christmas Eve just wishing for their dads,” she said.
Although Tramazzo didn’t meet the first Hero House family, who went on a vacation in North Carolina when Rosa and Marc Scola donated their condo there, Tramazzo did meet the second family served by the Foundation on Marco Island and stays in touch with them and other families.
The weekend near Veterans Day has become the Foundation’s time for its main annual fundraiser with live and silent auctions, 5 – 7:30 PM, Saturday, November 9 at the SpeakEasy, 1106 North Collier Boulevard, Marco Island.
In addition to the fundraiser, sales of jewelry, trademarked as Arm Armor, made from spent shotgun shells, is sold to help raise funds for the families’ vacations.
Among the people helping Tramazzo to collect stories and assemble shot shells is Bixler, who is also a jewelry designer, as were Tramazzo’s father, grandfather and great grandfather.
“I’ve made jewelry. I’ve designed it. So in December 2015, I asked [Tramazzo], ‘do you need help?’ The next thing you know, we were collecting shotgun shells and adhering them to jewelry pieces,” said Bixler.
To learn more about the jewelry, the collection of military stories, upcoming events and how to get involved, visit BTHeroHouse.org.