The U.S. military tenant “no man left behind” extends beyond the Soldier. Last weekend, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) and Gold Star Teen Adventures made sure that 24 Gold Star teens were not left behind.
Participants in the Gold Star Teen Adventures Program range in age from 12 to 18 years old, and events primarily include adventure based activities such as scuba diving, outdoor survival, camping and rock climbing.
“The kids we work with are all pretty high-adventure kids. It’s in the D.N.A., I think,” said Lt. Col. Kent Solheim, commander, 3rd Battalion, 3rd SFG (A). “I figure if their dads were here, they would probably be doing that stuff anyway, since dad’s not here we try to … give them opportunities to do really cool things.”
Typically, new participants are introduced to the program during summer events, however, last weekend’s events offered a chance at healing, support and understanding to four teens just beginning to face the loss of a parent.
“At this particular event we have four teens that have never done an event before and ... just recently lost parents … from 3rd Group,” explained Solheim.
Four days of adventurous activities included physical training, jumping into Mott Lake from Zodiacs, riding around Mott Lake on MRZR all-terrain vehicles, pistol and M-4 shooting ranges, active mission scenarios in the Range 65 shoot house, wind tunnel parachute jump simulations, combatives instruction at the 3rd SFG (A) Dojo and paintball.
The focal points for Gold Star Teen Adventures program are opportunity, mentorship, leadership and character building.
There is a sense of safety and opportunity to heal in shared experiences for many of these teens.
“All these kids know is that the kid to the left and the right of them has gone through the same thing. So, there is just an instant connection that happens, so that’s really the most important thing for me is to see them come together and try to work through on their own and realize they are not alone,” said Solheim.
The program draws mentors from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and the Military Academy at West Point, New York.
“We bring in what I consider young men and women of good character, that have been at these academies where they learn about leadership, they learn about character, they learn about values and ethics … they interact with these kids,” he said.
“You just see them blossom. I have mentored over 45, 50 kids and just to see the growth from the beginning from when they are 12, 13 years old to when they are 18, has been huge,” said 1st Lt. Olivia Schretzman, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division and a lead mentor with the program.
The idea for Gold Star Teen Adventures was borne of Solheim’s personal experience with trauma. In 2007, while serving in Iraq, Solheim was wounded and eventually lost his right leg.
He said the program was created from his own healing process.
“It was a pretty traumatic injury and a long recovery so part of that learning for me was what you have wanted for your kids … the best therapy, I think, is somebody that can really understand, and its best often times when someone is just a little farther ahead of you. So, you look and go ‘Okay, hey, it’s going to be alright,’” explained Solheim.
To Solheim, Gold Star Teen Adventures comes from a sense of community and duty.
“(It is) a sense of responsibility for guys that weren’t as lucky as me, so we owe it to them … I would say as a nation … we owe it to these kids. Their sacrifice is deep and they didn’t get the choice. This is just something they live now.”