Lee’s note: I wrote this story for the paper this weekend. These “Gold Star” teens are some very special kids, whose fathers made the ultimate sacrifice.
Published: Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 11:26 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 3, 2016 at 11:26 a.m.
SARASOTA – When a United States military special operations service member falls in the line of duty, their children become “Gold Star” teens, denoting that their parent made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
The special operations community — Special Forces, Army Rangers, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Navy Small Boat Teams, Navy SEALs, Air Force Combat Controllers, Marine Corps special operations personnel and other elite units — never forgets the sacrifice their colleagues made.
This small, tight community of special operators never stops caring for the children who were left behind, these very special Gold Star kids.
Gold Star Teen Adventures is a nonprofit founded by an active duty Special Forces officer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, not far from Fort Bragg. The group hosts eight adventure outings a year, which are held around the county. The outings are designed to foster relationships between the teens, and to develop leadership skills and build character.
“We don’t run grief camps,” said adviser Kevin McDonnell, a retired Army colonel and former commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group (Airborne).
McDonnell brought around a dozen Gold Star Teens to a remote ranch in Sarasota County this weekend, for “Operation Blackbeard,” with cadets and midshipmen from several service academies assisting as mentors.
The kids got a chance to hunt wild hogs, horseback ride, shoot clay pigeons and much more. They stayed in tents and campers. Each teen was accompanied by an experienced hunting guide.
“They just value being here together,” McDonnell said. “Our goal is to provide an example of what you can do if you apply yourself.”
McDonnell and the other staff shrouded the teens in a blanket of securit because their fathers conducted sensitive missions against enemy forces still capable of causing harm. Pictures and interviews were not permitted of anyone under 18.
A daughter pays it forward
Kaylee Henry, now 20, is a Gold Star Teen who was mentoring female members of the group.
“Whenever you come on one of these trips, you don’t focus on being a Gold Star Teen or grief of sadness,” she said. “You just focus on having a good time, around kids who understand. We all support each other and love each other.”
Henry has attended several Gold Star Teen Adventures, including scuba diving in Bonaire, one of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea.
“This is my favorite one,” she said of the Sarasota County outing. “And I’ve been involved a lot with the organization.”
Henry keeps in touch with the other teens when home.
“The groups created an app and we message every day,” she said.
Her new role as mentor came naturally.
“We don’t talk a whole lot about our dads,” Henry said. “We make sure they’re comfy about what they’re doing, make sure their needs are met, and make sure they’re safe and having a good time.”
A communication major at a state college, Henry was tasked with mentoring the other teens in social media, and much more.
“I’ve personally learned that it’s okay to grieve and be sad, but there are so many people who care about you,” she said. “Right now, there are six girls here, and I mentor all of them.”
Several hours later, Henry was firing a shotgun for the first time, decimating clay pigeons, smiling ear-to-ear.
“It’s fun!” she said. “I love it!”
Click here to see a photo gallery of the event.
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