HIGHLAND | One of the most expensive events in a couple’s life revolves around exchanging marriage vows.

Weddings can cost well into five figures, especially when factoring in such expenses as the bridal gown, the per-meal price and bar tab for the reception and the honeymoon.

Depending on fabric, style, designer and accents, the wedding dress can run in the $1,000-to-$6,000 range.

To help defray some wedding costs for military couples, Brides Across America is partnering with 37 bridal shops in 21 states through Nov. 24 to provide free wedding dresses to military brides.

Either the brides or their fiancés are currently serving in the U.S. military and are or have been deployed within the past five years to overseas assignments.

Elegance Wedding & Evening Wear at 2820 Highway Ave. in downtown Highland is one of those 37 shops, and the only one in Indiana, to participate in the Brides Across America’s sixth annual Operation Wedding Gown.

Owner Charlott Sitarski and her staff of bridal consultants recently helped five military brides from as far away as Indianapolis find the perfect wedding dresses and the price tag for those elegant bridal gowns was zero dollars.

“The troops do so much for us, and we need to honor them,” Sitarski said. “We were so excited when they contacted us this year to participate. It started six years ago, and we hadn’t heard about it before.”

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Santosha Johnson, 36 and a graduate of Gary Roosevelt High School, traveled from Indianapolis to select the perfect wedding dress for her April 29 nuptials to U.S. Army Sgt. Otis James, 42, at The Excalibur Resort in Las Vegas.

James was deployed for eight months to Afghanistan in April 2008 and is stationed in Richmond, Va.

Johnson brought along her mother, Merrillville resident Yvetta Miller, maid-of-honor Quiana Moore, of Indianapolis, and bridesmaid Alisha Simmons, of Gary, for a day of shopping at the Highland store.

“This really helps with our expenses,” Johnson said as she tried on numerous wedding dresses with the help of Cathy Wyant, Elegance bridal consultant.

Park Forest resident Kristin Barry spent part of the same day shopping and trying on bridal gowns at Elegance Wedding & Evening Wear for her May 25 wedding.

Barry, 26, will marry Air Force Staff Sgt. Josh Degenhardt, of Murphysboro, Ill., a recruiter with the 101st Airborne based in Wilmington, N.C. Degenhardt was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and served a 15-month tour of duty there.

The couple will be married in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., and plan a honeymoon in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

“I thought this program was a really great opportunity, and I am excited to have this opportunity,” said the bride-to-be, who met her future husband at a Chicago Bears game. “This really helps out with our finances so we can have a honeymoon.”

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