Shots fired. Simulated gunfire rang through the small building as eight teenagers learned about different weaponry and practiced with different realistic computerized guns. Everyone compared scores and congratulated each other on a solid shot with smiles and high fives.
But while these teens were firing simulated guns yesterday, the real reason they are in Rhode Island is to learn to sail.
The teens, all from different states, convened this week in Rhode Island for the Gold Star Teen Adventure Sailing Camp.
Run by Gold Star Teen Adventures (GSTA), three mentors from the U.S. Naval Academy are working with the camp. The campers are staying in Jamestown, and visited Mystic, the East Greenwich and Newport Yacht Clubs and other places across Rhode Island.
On Wednesday morning, the group was at Camp Fogarty on South County Trail to visit the Rhode Island National Guard’s Special Operations Detachment Global unit that returned from Afghanistan in March. There the campers used the simulator to learn the fundamentals and the safety precautions of gun use.
The campers, despite different backgrounds, all have one thing in common. They have a parent who died in action in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In 2007 Kent Solheim, a special operations officer, had suffered injuries while in Iraq, eventually losing his right leg. Through his healing, Solheim questioned the emotional toll families would have to endure to lose someone in the war. He had noted that should he have lost his life, he would have wanted his own children to understand the “brotherhood of the special operations community.”
He thus began the Gold Star Teen Adventures to help kids come together for emotional healing purposes and to have experiences that they may have had with their parents. Since its inception in 2010, GSTA has helped nearly 300 families.
GSTA has camps throughout the year and throughout the country. This summer they also have a camp in Florida and North Carolina.
This is the first GSTA camp to be held in Rhode Island, but Jessica McCloskey and Capt. Gary Mace, both board directors and coordinators for GSTA, said they would like to see the program become an annual event.
Both McCloskey and Mace traveled to Rhode Island donating their time as chaperones for the camp.
They explained that the camp reaches out to families who have lost someone in the line of duty through the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the camp is free, running off monetary, time, and other donations.
Although all the kids have faced tragedy before the camp, Mace assured, “This is not a pity party.”
McCloskey said, “These kids are tired of sadness, tired of crying. This camp gives them a positive outlet and the impact on them is amazing.”
The two explained that the camp, along with the skills such as sailing or scuba diving, focuses on character and confidence building as well as leadership skills.
They said campers who were having trouble in school or socially left camp with a confidence they had never expected.
“They can walk into a room and say they have done something no one here has done before. If they can learn scuba diving, sailing, they can take on school, they can take on anything,” McCloskey said.
Mace said, “We are not trying to take the place of their parents, but we want to give them the experiences they may have had with them. Show them some of the things their parents would have learned in training. We want these kids to leave with positive role models that will last a lifetime. This camp can be life changing for so many kids. They try and emulate the role models they see here.”
The bond these kids form within the week they are together defies all odds. In one week, strangers become lifelong friends, family members.
McCloskey and Mace explained that within the first day of meeting one another, the kids are very close. Every morning the group sits together at a large round table and eats breakfast as a family.
Mace said, “When you come down, they are strangers, but when they leave, they are members of my family forever.”
The campers keep in contact not just with each other after the camp ends, but also with their mentors.
Shaina, a camper, has been to three other camps through the GSTA program. She said she still speaks with many of the campers and even reunited with some old friends at this year’s sailing camp.
She said, “This camp is so fun and you meet great friends. I will talk to everyone here for the rest of my life.”
“It really helps to bond with everyone. We get to try new things and see where our strengths are,” Shaina said.
Shaina definitely had a strength in the simulator. She was one of the top shooters, which she thinks is “totally awesome.”
Shaina said thanks to the camps, she has been looking into going to the Naval Academy after she graduates high school. She will be touring the academy this fall.
McCloskey, who lost her husband in the war, said that the special ops drive is hereditary. That is why the camp offers exhilarating experiences for the teenagers.
“I see it in my own son already. These kids are just born with a drive, this need for adventure. We try and supply that experience. These kids inherently want to explore, they want this positive influence and the camaraderie this camp offers.”
Operations Officer Mike Manning, with the RI National Guard, who was helping the kids throughout the morning at Camp Fogarty said, “It is good to give back to the special ops community, which is pretty robust in Rhode Island. This is an important mission here and we wanted to support the program.”
Mace and McCloskey both agree that this camp has been successful thanks to the hospitality of Rhode Island.
Mace said, “This is the sailing capital of the country. We knew we had to come here, but we were surprised at how welcomed we have been. We have received more offers for activities than we have time for.”
“None of the campers are from the New England area, but after one day here all the campers have started to say everything is ‘wicked awesome’ trying to match the accent. It has just been fantastic here. We definitely want to make this an annual camp,” he said.
To find out more information on GSTA or to donate to the program, visit www.gstadventures.org. Donations can also be sent to Gold Star Teen Adventures, 7711 S. Raeford Rd., Suite 102, P.O. Box 152, Fayetteville, NC 28304.