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Camp Mackall boot camp helps children of fallen soldiers learn, heal

HOFFMAN — Kenny Cantrell beamed while he sat with two other boys under a shelter they had built of tree limbs and pine straw.

His grandmother, Raye Cantrell, couldn't help but smile back.

Just over two years ago, Kenny - now 15 years old - lost his father and sisters when the family's Hope Mills home caught fire.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Edward Duane Cantrell was a combat veteran serving with the 3rd Special Forces Group.

Raye Cantrell said Kenny lost his father, but not the family ties to the military and Fort Bragg.

Earlier this month, Kenny joined more than two dozen children of fallen soldiers for a military boot camp at Camp Mackall.

The March 22 event was led by Special Forces soldiers and instructors and was hosted by the Army's Army.

"Children of the Fallen members have all endured a tragic loss, and we are committed to hosting regular events which facilitate their development and demonstrate the support available in their community," said Janine West, executive director of the Army's Army.

At Camp Mackall, the Cantrell family mingled with other families of fallen troops as they learned from instructors of the Special Forces Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course.

Children learned to build shelters, start fires and shoot homemade bows and arrows. They also were treated to two meals - pizza from Fazoli's and various "critters" from the SERE school's Road Kill Cafe.

"I want the kids to leave here absolutely exhausted with a smile on their face," said Gordon Smith, a retired Green Beret command sergeant major who now teaches survival skills to special operations soldiers.

Among the pine and sand of Camp Mackall, Kenny Cantrell took to the woods like his grandmother knew he would.

Kenny and his father used to hunt together, and the teen often spends time in the woods around the house, Raye Cantrell said.

"I knew he'd be into this," she said.

As an added bonus, the family knew that Edward Cantrell likely trained on this very same land.

"This is where his father was," Raye Cantrell said. "It's very important to us."

Being around other children who understood his loss helped, she said.

"That has been the most help to Kenny - it's being around kids like him," Raye Cantrell said.

First Sgt. Bobby Norwood, who oversees the SERE course with company commander Maj. Todd Sunday, said they were honored to host the families of fallen soldiers.

He said many of the soldiers and instructors were proud to serve as father figures for the children and said instructors beg to be part of the camp, now in its second year.

"We just like to thank the children," Norwood said.

The families were appreciative of the time.

Rebecca Samten-Finch said she and her two children, 11-year-old Dharma and 10-year-old Michael, drove several hours from Murphy to attend the camp.

Her husband, Spc. Tenzin Samten, died in Iraq in 2008 while serving with the 10th Mountain Division.

As Samten-Finch watched, Dharma and Michael took turns starting fires with the help of a bearded survival instructor.

"I think this is very important," she said of bringing the children of fallen soldiers together. "They feel normal and can honor their dad."

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