Franklin outdoors camp helps military kids heal from loss
It was an intense few days for Virginia Beach, Virginia, resident Seth. Eight miles of hiking, 4.5 of those bushwhacking, all with an overnight pack on his back. A couple of hours of rock climbing. Three more miles of hiking. And that was just day one.
Before the week was out, he’d log 6 more miles of hiking, 5 of canoeing and hours more of survival skill classes and drills. An impressive feat for most people, and Seth is only 14.
Seth was one of the youngest of the group, but nine other teens completed the strenuous four-day itinerary in the forest near Franklin. And while most groups of teenagers would have balked at the bugs and the heat and the never-ending trail, Gold Star Teen Adventures isn’t for most teenagers.
All 10 kids were the children of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, also called Green Berets. They’ve all seen human physicality pushed to its limit, all grown up in an environment where grit and willpower and perseverance are valuable commodities.
“It’s very, very clear that the apples didn’t fall far from the trees,” said Rob Gasbarro, who owns Franklin’s Outdoor 76 and helped organize the camp. “They’re all just incredibly physically capable. They’re all in great shape. They all eat well. They’re all really, really smart. They’re all ‘yes sir, no ma’am’ kids.”
A unique breed
They’re also all kids without dads. The camp is open exclusively to teens whose Green Beret fathers died in combat.
The children of Kent Solheim, the camp’s founder, were almost in that category. During a 2007 tour of duty in Iraq, Solheim, himself a Green Beret, took four bullets and eventually had to amputate a leg.
“He almost didn’t make it home,” said his wife Trina.
He did make it, though, returning to his wife and two children, then 8 and 11, now 16 and 19.
“When he made it home, he wanted to do something for the kids of a guy he worked with who didn’t,” Trina said.
But what should that “something” be? As Kent went through his own recovery process, he started to figure it out.
“It was better for me to get out and have a good time and try new things and not necessarily sit around the campfire and feel sorry for myself,” he said. “It was about moving past that and moving forward.”
That’s where the idea for Gold Star came from.
“This is about having a good time and being with other kids who have been through what you’ve been through,” Kent said. “But you don’t have to talk about it. Everybody knows.”
Special Forces families are a unique breed, Kent said. That’s why his camps, which since 2011 have grown from a single diving camp in Florida to include multiple other diving options as well as two outdoor camps based largely in Franklin, focus on physical challenge and outdoor skills.
“Kent picked these skills because he feels that these are things that this community would have done with their kids,” Trina explained. They were combat divers, so they would have taken their kids diving. They were outdoorsmen, so they would have taught them how to survive in the wild.
“I look at the moms that came with us on the first couple of trips, and I watch them and they’re able to see their kids do something they might not have been able to give them,” Trina said.
The Florida diving camps went quite well, but Kent soon realized that not every teen wants to scuba dive. An idea began to form, and Kent reached out to a guy he knew in Franklin, Duotech Services CEO Dan Rogers, to talk about starting an outdoor survival camp.
Rogers, whose Franklin-based company is heavily involved with military agencies, is also a private pilot and has been working with the nonprofit Veterans Airlift Command for about 10 years. The organization connects private pilots with wounded combat veterans and their families who need a ride — whether it’s to a medical appointment, hospital visit or special military event. Through a piece of serendipity, Kent found himself hitching a ride on Rogers’ plane.
“We just sort of connected,” Rogers said. “We just had a passion for taking care of the wounded warriors but also taking care of the families of the fallen.”
So, when Kent asked whether Rogers would be willing to help put together a Gold Star camp in the mountains of North Carolina for 2014, there was only one answer.
“Of course I said yes,” Rogers said.
Rogers, who with his wife Cheryl owns an 80-acre property complete with sleeping space, cooking facilities and an outdoor pavilion able to accommodate all the campers, mentors and staff, offered up his place as base camp and took over all the back-end logistics that go into planning a camp. Then, he headed over to Outdoor 76 to see if he could get Gasbarro on board.
It wasn’t hard.
“I recognized pretty quickly this was something pretty special,” Gasbarro said. Rogers had originally asked for Gasbarro’s help planning the trek, but Gasbarro jumped in to hook the camp up with equipment and offer himself as a guide.
“That camp went really, really well,” Gasbarrow said, “and I think Kent and I were riding a super big high after that camp going, ‘OK, what next? We can’t just stop here.’”
‘Real outside’ in North Carolina
Enter 2015, the debut of the Advanced Outdoor Leadership Camp, exclusively for alumni of the beginner’s week that started last year.
“It kind of kicked my butt,” said Kyla, 17.
That was by design, Gasbarro said.
“The itinerary was very challenging, and that was intentional from both mine and Kent’s part,” he said. “We wanted to make it not easy.”
The camp began June 18 with a send-off from the Rogers’ farm and then the trek in the woods, beginning from private property below Betty’s Creek on the North Carolina-Georgia state line. The campers completed a 4.5-mile bushwhack up to the rocky outcrop of Pickens Nose, where they got some climbing time with professionals from Brevard-based Fox Mountain Guides. They then proceeded toward the Standing Indian Area on the Appalachian Trail, logging 11 miles total the first day. The next day they worked their way north up to the Bartram Trail, bringing the mile count to 17.
They stayed that night at the Rogers’ and then set out for Lake Nantahala, where a partnership with Lakes End Diner and Marina supplied them with kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards for a 2.5-mile paddle out to the island where they would spend the night. They’d have to undergo a series of tests — a knot-tying class followed by a speed-tying contest, a first aid class, a drill that involved creating a makeshift raft to save a “drowning” Kent, coming back and starting a fire with nothing but a stick — before leaving the island the next morning and eventually heading back to the airport June 23.
Even a Special Forces kid like Kyla wasn’t ready to say it was an easy week.
“I like being outside, but I’m from California,” said Kyla, who has also lived in Washington, Virginia, Georgia and Japan. “I like being outside, but that’s not actually outside because the water’s perfect and there’s no bugs. I was in real outside in North Carolina.”
She recalled last year’s camp when she “screamed a lot because (she) was terrified of everything” — meaning mainly snakes, bugs and bears. She reflected that she’s probably “grown up a lot since then because I’m not so loud and obnoxious.”
About the people
Despite all that, however, Kyla’s enjoyed her time at camp. The kids seem to thrive on the physical challenge, Kent said, often returning for several of the different types of camp offered each summer.
“We think it’s good for the kids,” he said. “We’ve seen it year after year, real positive feedback.”
A lot of the positives, Kyla said, have to do with the community.
“It was a lot of hiking, and it’s really more about being with the people, because that was intense,” she said.
The military lifestyle is undeniably different than civilian life, so for a military kid it can be hard to find a friend who truly understands. And Special Forces families are an even smaller, specific subset of the military with their own unique experiences, so without a resource like Gold Star, navigating the aftermath of a father’s and husband’s death can be especially difficult.
“Now we don’t live close to a base, and going to these camps is a way to stay in touch with who he (husband Jason) was and the people that we maybe understand in a lot of ways too,” said Kyla’s mom Teresa.
Kent, too, envisions the camps as something much different than a one-shot summer experience.
“Our goal is that kids come year after year after year,” he said.
The Special Forces network is like a family, united by common experience and a common way of life. Gold Star is like a reunion, and not just for the kids.
“We’re just so close to Trina and Kent over the last few years, I’ve laughed about how Kent is very similar to Jason,” said Teresa, who herself was in the military between 1995 and 2005. “We almost consider them adopted family at this point.”
She’s heard rumors that the Solheims might be coming over around Christmas, Kyla said, and for her part, Teresa’s grateful that Kyla and her other daughter Hannah have been able to have the experiences the Gold Star camps afford.
“The things she has done with Kent and his family and his mentors, those are the things that Jason and I wanted to share with our kids,” Teresa said. “We still do those things, going out and trying to live that life that we would have lived together. The camps are part of that. Kyla in particular has met people that knew her dad.”
For Seth, just getting to know Kent has been an important outcome.
“He’s helped me,” Seth said. “He’s given me values to look up to. He’s been a leader for me, a mentor for me, someone to look up to and try and be like, because I know he’s a great person and he’s always there for me. He actually invited me up to visit his house at West Point.”
Mentorship is definitely part of the program. Aside from Kent, each camp includes at least four mentors, two male and two female, who are cadets at one of America’s military schools.
Right now, both Kyla and Seth say they see a military future for themselves, as well. Kyla wants to become a trauma surgeon and enlist in the Air Force, while Seth hopes to go either to West Point or the U.S. Naval Academy.
But for the moment, their education is focused on one of the key truths of being part of the Special Forces family: no life is solo.
“If nobody comes back, we’re all messed up,” Teresa said. “We’re all responsible for everybody else.”
Make it happen
Gold Star camps are free to the teens that attend them, and the organization relies on a combination of foundation funding, private donations and fundraising to foot the bill. Find out how to donate some dollars or sponsor a camper at www.gstadventures.org or mail to Gold Star Teen Adventures, 7711 S. Raeford Rd., Ste. 102, Fayetteville, N.C. 28304.