On Saturday, July 19, the quiet of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School's SERE training area at Camp Mackall, N.C., was disturbed only by the squeaking sounds of sticks rubbing together and the occasional outburst of laughter and applause when a spark emanated from the sticks.
The cause of both disturbances was a group of 14 high school students from across the United States who were participating in a week-long outdoor camp. The students attending the camp have a unique bond: They are children of fallen special operations Soldiers. The Gold Star Teen Adventures provide unique opportunities for these young adults -- opportunities that come from the men and women their fathers and mothers called family.
Maj. Kent Solheim, the former commander of Co. D., 1st Bn., 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne), U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, is the man behind the camps. Solheim, a Special Forces Soldier, was wounded in combat in Iraq in 2007, ultimately losing his right leg. Throughout his recovery, Solheim reflected on the fact that he made it home to watch his children grow up. He knew that if he had not survived, he would have wanted them to "know the brotherhood of the special operations community" and to share in the adventures that he and his SOF brothers love. He also recognized that spending time with others who had endured similar traumas aided in his healing. Putting those two revelations together, he came up with the idea of the Gold Star Teen Adventures.
The adventures bring the Gold Star children together to experience the kind of adventures that their parents would have introduced them to had they lived. The program, which is funded through donations and is open to family members of fallen Special Forces, Army Rangers, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, 4th Military Information Support to Operations Command, Navy Small Boat Teams, Navy Seals, Air Force Combat Controllers, Air Force rotary and fixed wing squadrons and Marine Corps special operations personnel, is manned by volunteers like Solheim and his Soldiers from the SERE Committee, and is based on four key pillars: development, mentorship, opportunity and healing.
"While we don't focus on their loss, eventually they will talk about it, because it is the one thing they all have in common," explained Solheim. "Instead we focus on sharing these great adventures and challenging them to go out of their comfort zone. I don't want the kids to come to just one camp; I want them to come to three or four because that's how mentorship happens, when you are continually exposed to something."
Solheim becomes emotional when he talks about the fallen Soldiers the participants represent. "The thing we do here are things their dads or moms would have taught them without a doubt," he said. "By experiencing these things, they are able to understand parts of their parent and really feel closer to them."
During this particular camp, known as the Outdoor Leadership Camp, the students were trained by SF instructors on basic survival and mountaineering skills. While at the SERE training area, the students learned basic survival skills like identifying plants, how to read a compass, how to start a fire and how to trap food. The camp culminates with the students testing their survival skills in the Appalachian Mountains by camping and white water rafting.
Feedback from students has been positive, as has that from their parents. In a letter to the foundation, one Gold Star Mom wrote:
"As a surviving spouse I am sometimes overwhelmed, not only by the loss and loneliness of losing my husband, but also with the incredible responsibility of raising our children the way (my husband) and I could have and would have together. We were both dive certified and spent our years together hiking, biking, swimming and planning. When we had our first child we dreamed of all the things we would do together. When (my husband) died, our two daughters were still so young and there were so many things we hadn't yet had a chance to teach them and my buddy was gone. The dive trip to Key Largo this past summer with our daughter meant so much more than sharing something (my husband) and I had both loved, it gave (my daughter) and I a chance to remember, to share together what I thought I had maybe lost. Watching (my daughter) challenge herself and truly love diving, I literally grinned from ear to ear, laughed out loud. She reminded me of (my husband). Thank you."
For more information about Gold Star Teen Adventures, visit the website at www.gstadventures.org.