Growing up in a military family is never easy. Often times it involves a lot of moving around, being away from a parent for long periods of time, and living a lifestyle that a lot of people don’t understand. The one thing that can make all of that even harder, is when you lose someone you love as a casualty of war.
To help children who lose loved ones in combat, Major Kent Solheim, a special operations service member who lost his right leg when he was seriously wounded in combat in Iraq in 2007, created the Gold Star Teen Adventures summer program.
Realizing that if he would have not survived his accident in 2007 he would have still wanted his two children to know the brotherhood of the special operations community, Solheim created Gold Star Teen Adventures. He wanted to create an environment where Gold Star children can come together and be a part of experiences with others who have shared a similar journey.
Last week, 14 teens from all across the country met in Macon County to experience the lessons Solheim works to instill through the program.
“Western North Carolina had all of the outdoor activities the Foundation was looking for,” Major Kent Solheim said of his decision to come to Macon County for the first time. “The youth were able to rock climb, whitewater raft, and hike on the Appalachian Trail. We had tremendous support from Outdoor 76, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and the Franklin community.”
The youth, who were between the ages of 12-17 started their journey at the camp at Camp MacKall, N.C. There they trained with Special Forces instructors on land navigation and wilderness survival. From there, the youth endured a day of rock climbing at Looking Glass, a day and a half hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a day at the Nantahala Outdoor Center white water rafting, riding the zip-line, and challenging themselves on the ropes course. The theme for the camp was leadership. The youth received a leadership class at the beginning of the camp and were assigned leadership positions for the remainder of the camp to develop those skills.
Gold Star Teen Adventures is for family members of fallen United States military special operations service members which include Green Berets, Army Rangers, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, 4th MISOC, Navy Small Boat Teams, Navy SEALs, Air Force Combat Controllers, Air Force rotary and fixed wing squadrons and Marine Corps special operations personnel. The program gives teens the opportunity to spend several days learning how to rough it in the wild and learn survival kills like archery and how to start fires.The officers and instructors are all active duty with the Army's Special Forces who volunteer their time.
Local businesses partner with Solheim to make the teens’ trip to the mountains an experience they will never forget.
Dan and Cheryl Rogers, who own Duotech Services in Franklin, worked with Major Solheim to bring the kids to the mountains of Western North Carolina. Both Cheryl and Dan are part of the Gold Start Teen Adventures Organization and helped to organize the Franklin events.
“Our passion is for our troops, their families and children of the fallen,” said Dan Rogers. “These kids need these types of challenges and character building events. It helps them foster a ‘team spirit’ and gives them opportunities that they may not have.”
Local Outdoor Adventures business Outdoor 76 worked with Rogers and Solheim to ensure the children had everything they needed for their adventure.
“First and foremost, we felt extremely drawn to the foundation and what it stands for,” said Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76. “There aren't words to describe the emotion that this mission and experience drew out of us. Every one of these kids will grow up without a mom or dad. Their parents were some of the most elite servicemen and women in our country's military - SEALs, Rangers, MARSOC, Green Beret, Delta Force, etc. Many of these kids have no clue how or where their dads lost their lives. Any opportunity to feed into these kids' lives is an honor for us. The camp could not have fallen into our wheelhouse any better either. This was a high-adventure camp with climbing, hiking, camping, paddlesports, etc. - right up our alley.”
Outdoor 76 helped in procuring a lot of the gear that each child needed such as backpacks, hammocks, sleeping bags, tarps and other essentials. “We also spent the better part of three days with the camp accompanying them on the hike, camp, wilderness exercises and whitewater rafting trip,” said Gasbarro. “Each year will be a new group, needing new gear. The long term plans with GSTA is to have the kids coming back to Franklin. If any folks would like to help or just learn more, please go to www.gstadventures.org. Outdoor 76 is deeply committed to future collaboration with GSTA and doing more to rally our community around this foundation.”
With the success of this year’s event, Solheim hopes to expand the program in western North Carolina next year.
“The camp was a tremendous success in part because of the outstanding support of the community,” said Major Solheim. “Gold Star Teen Adventures is looking forward to expanding the outdoor program in Western North Carolina in 2015. If anyone is interested in supporting the program or learning more about the Foundation they can do so at our website at www.gstadventures.org.”