Standing on a beach next to a large American flag on Sunday afternoon, U.S. Army Maj. Kent Solheim was about to swim the first 45-minute leg of a 24-hour relay in the bay that would appropriately end on Veterans Day.
In the distance, 1,015 small American flags were stuck into the ground one at a time in honor of the country’s special-operations service members who have died in the line of duty since 9/11.
But the flags in the “Healing Field” did not represent the 447 fallen soldiers. They represented the kids they left behind.
The Freedom Swim was created to try to raise $100,000 for Gold Star Teen Adventure Foundation, which Solheim founded after he came close to leaving his wife a widow and his young son and daughter fatherless during a deployment in Iraq.
In July 2007, Solheim’s Green Beret team fast-roped down from helicopters during a raid to capture a senior leader of infamous Shiite militia the Mahdi Army in the city of Karbala. Insurgents attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. Solheim earned the Silver Star medal for his bravery that led to saving American lives. But in the final moments, he was shot four times, in both legs and his shoulder.
Numerous surgeries followed. But after 20 months of trying to save his right leg, he decided to have it amputated.
It was a tough road to recovery, but Solheim didn’t go it alone. In addition to his supportive family and friends, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center he was surrounded by other military service members dealing with similar traumatic injuries.
“I experienced emotional and physical healing being able to interact with them,” he said. “I took that lesson away when I left the hospital.”
Solheim also thought about his kids, and what he would want for them if he hadn’t survived. “I realized a lot of opportunity my kids have is because I am in their lives, just like any other dad, of course. They’ve learned to dive after my injury, and now that is something we routinely do as a family.”
So Solheim says the foundation pays tribute to the fallen soldiers by doing something they would have wanted: helping their teenage kids heal and grow.
The goal of the Freedom Swim — which began at 1 p.m. Sunday and will end at 1 p.m. Monday at Founders Park in Islamorada — is to raise enough money to send 60 kids to four camps next summer.
There are diving adventures in Key Largo and Bonaire, a sailing camp along the Texas coastline, and an adventure outdoor camp in which teens test their survival skills in the Appalachian Mountains and white-water raft in North Carolina.
“So let’s swim,” Solheim said as a rally cry.
He was the first to jump into the waters of Florida Bay. He solicited seven other swimmers, most active-duty military, to do the relay. Each swims as far as they can for 45 minutes. The goal is to swim for a collective 50 kilometers, or about 31 ½ miles.
Capt. Gary Mace of Conch Republic Divers, and a board member of the foundation, helped put together the logistics after Solheim concluded it made more sense to swim in the warm water of the Keys in November than in the frigid cold of North Carolina, where most of the swimmers are stationed.
For swimmer Paul McNamara, 51, a retired Green Beret, it was especially gratifying. In 1966, his father was killed in Vietnam. He also was a Green Beret.
McNamara was only 3. While he doesn’t remember his dad, he does remember how tough it was on the family he left behind. His mom was forced to raise five kids, the oldest just 8, on her own.
“The story I remember as a kid is going to church every Sunday and expecting my dad to come through communion one day,” McNamara said. “I sat in the church and prayed for that, but it never happened.”
McNamara swam his first leg and saw a stingray, fish, fire coral and a lobster trap. “I was just cruising along like in an aquarium, having fun,” he said.
But he admitted he’s a tad apprehensive swimming his next two stints — both at night. “When I was in special forces, I was on a SCUBA team in Okinawa, [Japan]. Before we’d go over the side, our team had a saying: ‘Prepare to enter the food chain.’ ”
Each swimmer has a safety kayaker beside them at all times. A personal watercraft is also at the scene to transport swimmers.
Solheim also has recruited another amputee, Billy Costello, who had served under him at Charlie Company, fourth battalion, third special forces.
“Every guy who goes through a near-death experience, especially in combat, asks some pretty serious questions about how their family would be taken care of if they didn’t come home,” said Costello, a father of two.
He lost his right leg above the knee after stepping on an antipersonnel improvised explosive device while on foot reconnaissance patrol in a remote part of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in September 2011.
Costello and Solheim have both returned to active duty and active lives, which has included cycling with their former commander in chief, George W. Bush, at his ranch in Texas.
Jay Wolff, commandant for the civil officers regiment at Fort Bragg, provided support for the relay. He said the camps are especially important to bring Gold Star children together for a happy event rather than the solemn ceremonies they are used to attending together.
“The connection to other kids going through the same thing is a critical part of the healing process,” Wolff said. “But a lot of times, the family’s connection to the military often rapidly disappears. They move away.”
On one past adventure camp, a 12-year-old boy learned to dive in Key Largo. His dad was a Navy SEAL who had been killed when he was only 10 month old.
“My wife asked the boy how his first dive went,” Solheim said.
“The boy said: ‘I think my dad would have been really proud of me.’ ”