'Someone needs to fill that void'
Tricia English remembers looking inside the casket at her husband’s funeral and coming to a realization: “Everything that I planned is now gone.”
The death of Army Capt. Shawn English in Iraq in 2006 left her a single mother, wondering how she would be able to raise their three boys to be men.
“I could do all the mom stuff,” she said. “But, for my boys ... the male influence was so crucial and I needed help with that.”
At a memorial service for Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert, killed in Iraq in 2006, Lt. Col. Steve Harrold had an epiphany. Something needed to be done for the children of servicemen lost during military service, particularly their sons.
“Someone needs to fill that void and be the one to tell them they’re great and there’s nothing they can’t do in their lives,” he said. “It was while I was sitting there [at Gilbert’s memorial service] that the calling, I would call it, to do something for the boys really started to build in my heart.”
Thus was born the idea for what eventually became the Knights of Heroes, a free weeklong summer camp each year in Colorado for the children, ages 11-17, of men lost in military service.
“My dad never quit and neither will I.”
- Nathan English
The camp was first held in 2007 with 16 boys from four states and a budget of about $16,000. This summer, Harrold said, the program will host separate camps for about 50 boys and 25 girls from at least 17 states. The camps’ budget now exceeds $100,000.
Children who have attended the camps say that in between the fun they have rock climbing and whitewater rafting, they often find themselves doing something they don’t always do with their friends back home: sharing stories and their feelings about their fathers.
Haley Hartwick, 16, of Austin, Texas, said one of the things she misses most since her father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Mike Hartwick, was killed in Iraq in 2006, is the way he kissed her on the forehead whenever he came home, even if it meant waking her up in the middle of the night.
It’s sometimes frustrating, she says, when she tries to share feelings and memories like that with her friends, “because they have a dad figure in their lives. They really don’t understand.”
“At nighttime, we would all sit in our bunks and talk about all our feelings,” she said. “[The older girls] really got emotional when the little girls talked about their dads. They were even younger than we were when we lost our dads. We couldn’t even imagine what it’s like for them.”
Gilbert was Harrold’s flight commander at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. They had sons about the same age and often talked about how best to raise their boys.
“[Gilbert] was the kind of person who draws you to him,” Harrold said.
Gilbert urged Harrold to read “Raising a Modern Day Knight” by Robert Lewis, which Harrold described as a guide to “raising boys to be godly men.”
On Nov. 27, 2006, Gilbert was killed when the F-16 he was piloting crashed as he came to the assistance of coalition forces under attack from insurgents about 20 miles north of Baghdad. He left behind a widow, Ginger, and five young children.
Harrold was stationed at the Air Force Academy at the time and when he took his idea for a camp to his pastor, Eric Eaton of the Journey Chapel in Colorado Springs, the church rallied around the cause. In a matter of months, the church raised enough money to stage the first camp near Elbert, Colo.
Families that could benefit from the program were lined up by word of mouth, and volunteers were sought to serve as mentors for the boys.
The camp was named Knights of Heroes as a nod to the book.
Kerri Hartwick-Doughty, Haley’s mother, said when she first heard about the camp, she thought it would be a good way for her son Tanner “to just be a boy.”
“I can throw the football around with him ... but it’s just not the same thing,” she said. Tanner Hartwick said that before his mother remarried, “I was the only guy around the house,” so he saw the camp as a good way to “just hang out ... with a bunch of guys.”
For the first four years, while the boys were busy at the camp, separate activities were organized for their mothers and sisters.
English said widows benefit from getting together as much as the campers.
“The bonding is forever,” she said. “When I first went to the camp, I was in a stupor. I was still in a fog. But I left thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Last summer, a separate camp for the daughters of servicemen lost in military service was organized, complete with a set of female mentors.
“We found that just giving the girls a place to get together, and the healing that takes place between the girls, is just magical,” Harrold said.
While the camps are built on Christian foundations, Harrold said children are only ministered to if their mothers approve ahead of time.
While the camps’ schedules are loaded with outdoor activities — including mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, skeet shooting and archery — they are used to promote life lessons, such as taking responsibility for your actions and striving to become leaders.
“We want them to act like knights … [and] remember the world doesn’t owe you anything,” Harrold said.
English said the camp has had a significant impact on her sons. She recalled how her oldest, Nathan, took great pride in making it to the top during a rock-climb and then came down and declared, “My dad never quit and neither will I.”
And, while the program is designed for the children of fallen servicemen, mentors and camp officials are careful not to force the children into heavy discussions about their feelings of loss.
“We don’t do a whole lot of, ‘Sit in a circle and talk about your feelings,’” Harrold said. “We do an opening ceremony where everybody shares why they’re here, so they all understand they’re in a similar circumstance.”
On the last night of the camp, Harrold said, “We gather around and the kids will say what is the one thing their dad would be most proud of them for.”
Nathan English, 13, said thanks, in part, to the healing he has done during his years attending the camp, “I think [my father] would be very proud of me ... that I have worked through things and I’m strong.”
Children who do not want to share their thoughts at the opening and closing gatherings are allowed to pass, but Harold said mentors are always available to talk.
“You’ll hear them share their stories about how their father was killed or how they were notified,” he said. “It’s incredible to listen to those stories and know that they couldn’t do that if they weren’t here, because they aren’t going to find anyone else in their hometown or wherever to share it with.”
Noah English, 11, said that while he focuses on having fun, he likes knowing, “We’ve all gone through most of the same things. This camp helps you get your strength back. It helps us not be angry.”
Caitlin Rowe, 11, said, “It’s good to know there are people who care ... [and] who are going through what we are.”
Children are allowed to attend the camp as many years as they want until they reach the maximum age. Harrold has resisted calls for the camp to be opened to the children of female servicemembers killed in action, because that goes beyond the initial purpose of the program, and because he believes the camp could not sustain itself if it grew any larger.
“The need is well beyond our capacity,” he said. “We haven’t had to tell an eligible family ‘no’ yet, and we don’t want to.”
Harrold said fundraising is under way to buy land for a permanent camp location, perhaps as early as 2015.
“The goal is to get land somewhere and the kids would build something new every year,” he said. “It would become their home and we could offer that to the families through the year if they want to come out and stay a week. We’ll be able to offer programs throughout the year.”
Harrold declined to speculate about what his friend Gilbert would think of the program started in his honor, but the pilot’s widow — whose sons have attended the camp — was not shy in answering the question.
“Just like Troy, Steve just went for it,” she said. “I’m so proud of him. He’s a pilot, not a camp director, and he had to create this thing out of thin air.”