Gold Star Teens, 3rd Special Forces Group come together for 'family reunion'
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 15, 2017
Two dozen teens sat around a fire at Camp Mackall late Friday, sharing jokes and ghost stories.
But the most powerful tales -- the kinds of stories that tied the teens together -- were those left untold.
Untold because on that night, the teens didn't need to share their stories of heroic men going off to war. They didn't need to tell anyone how those men -- their fathers -- never returned.
They didn't need to say a thing, because every teen around the fire had a similar story.
"It's great," Vanessa, 19, said. "Not only do they understand... but no one's going to pressure you into talking. It's not a sad time. You can relax and just be yourself."
For four days, children of fallen special operations troops gathered on and around Fort Bragg as part of a special retreat organized by the nonprofit Gold Star Teen Adventures in conjunction with the 3rd Special Forces Group.
A little more than a week since four 3rd Group soldiers were killed while serving in Niger, the retreat was a reminder, officials said, that the unit -- and the larger special operations community -- would keep its promise to look after the families of fallen troops.
Gold Star Teen Adventures, an organization founded by Lt. Col. Kent Solheim and his wife, Trina, was founded on that promise.
As a Special Forces captain serving in Iraq in 2007, Solheim single-handedly thwarted an enemy assault in Karbala, when he exposed himself to enemy fire to kill a man firing a rocket propelled grenade and another enemy gunman preparing to ambush American and Iraqi troops.
According to officials, Solheim saved the lives of many who would have likely been killed by the attackers, earning him a Silver Star for his valor. But the attack cost him his right leg and nearly cost Solheim his life.
Bleeding on a battlefield in Iraq, Solheim said his first thoughts were of his children -- then ages 11 and 8.
Later, during a long recovery, he said he looked back on what could have happened.
"If I hadn't made it home, what would I have wanted for my kids?" Solheim said. "It was my wake-up call."
Solheim, now commander of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, said Gold Star Teen Adventures was born out of that thinking; coupled with lessons learned from his recovery.
"The best therapy was being around guys banged up the same way," Solheim said.
When he sees another veteran missing a leg, Solheim said there's an instant bond. It might only result in a nod or it could blossom in to a longer discussion. But either way, he knows they understand what each other have gone through.
He sees the same among Gold Star teens, even though their wounds are not visible.
"They all know why they're here," Solheim said. "There are immediate connections."
Gold Star Teen Adventures started in 2011 as a program within another organization, according to officials. It became its own nonprofit in 2014 and has since hosted multiple events each year for the children of fallen special operations troops, ages 12 to 18.
Many, such as Vanessa, have stayed with the organization to serve as mentors as they've gotten older. Other mentors come from the special operations community or from cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York or the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Solheim said the events are largely focused on providing experiences the children might have otherwise had with their fathers. They include hunting, scuba diving and other outdoor activities.
"We're not trying to replace dad," Solheim said. "But I believe if dad was here, the young person would be doing these things with him."
At Fort Bragg, the most recent event took on special meaning, thanks to the cooperation of 3rd Group soldiers who volunteered to help mentor the teenagers.
The Fort Bragg visit was billed as an opportunity for the teens to see what it was their fathers did for a living.
Through physical training, time on weapons ranges and other interactions with Special Forces soldiers, the teens -- for just a few days -- lived the sort of lives their parents had.
That has been an exciting opportunity for teens such as Vanessa and Logan, a 16-year-old who first got involved with Gold Star Teen Adventures last year.
"It's been great," Logan said. "It's really fun."
Shooting guns had been Logan's favorite part of the program as of Friday, but as he waited his turn at Paraclete XP Indoor Skydiving, he said the verdict was still out.
"I've been waiting for this," he said with a smile.
Vanessa said events like this stick with you long after you go home.
"The bonds that form, there are great friendships," she said. "We all stay in touch throughout the years."
Those impressions extend to mentors and other volunteers, too.
"It's unlike anything I've been a part of," said 1st Lt. Olivia Schretzman, who has volunteered with Gold Star Teen Adventures for four years.
Schretzman began volunteering as a cadet at West Point. Now, she's assigned to the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
As an Army brat, Schretzman said she understood the sacrifices some military families make when their parents are killed or wounded. But she said Gold Star Teen Adventures has changed her life.
"It's amazing just to see the impact with the kids," Schretzman said.
Schretzman said the Gold Star teens have been welcomed with open arms by the soldiers of 3rd Group.
"They get to finally do the things their dads were doing," she said. "You can see it on their faces. They have a lot of pride."
Command Sgt. Maj. Bruce Holmes, the senior enlisted soldier in 3rd Special Forces Group, said soldiers understand the importance of the four-day retreat.
In a way, the soldiers were welcoming the teens home to Fort Bragg.
That's why they offered their free time to show the teens how to fly in an indoor wind tunnel or set aside time to bolster their forces in a series of friendly paintball matches.
It's why soldiers were eager to show the teens how to hold a rifle or how to protect themselves in hand-to-hand combat.
"We all wear the uniform," Holmes said. "And we're all family."
In the past week, Holmes attended four ceremonies, where the remains of fallen 3rd Special Forces Group soldiers were returned to the United States.
At each, he said he told the spouses and children that 3rd Group would never forget about them.
It's a similar promise that has been made dozens of times since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And it's a promise, Holmes said, no one wants to break.
"A lot of the fathers here have a stone on our memorial walkway," he said. "Some of the children of those lost in Africa are here. But this is a long-term commitment. We tell spouses and children that, 'You're part of the family forever,' and we mean it."
Solheim recognizes that promise.
It's an important part of the brotherhood within 3rd Group and other special operations units.
"It's a very tight knit community," he said. "The central theme is family."
Solheim said Gold Star Teen Adventures is built on long-term relationships.
Over the years, teens come back and advance their skills. They go on increasingly difficult and adventurous outings that build on the skills they've learned in past events.
"We connect early on," he said, "and we stay connected."
Last year alone, the organization's programs had about 160 participants -- many of whom were repeat participants.
"I fundamentally believe that all these kids are wired for adventure," Solheim said. "We want to expose them to opportunities -- things their fathers might have done with them. This is not just a good idea. This is a responsibility. We owe it to the guys that didn't come back."
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