As we surfaced from her first certification dive on Conch Pillars reef, Vanessa, 17, exclaimed, “Wow! That was the coolest thing I have ever done.”
The other kids in my group of five scuba students heartily agreed. It had been a great dive with sightings of southern sting ray, a green turtle, a nurse shark, a big green moray eel and numerous reef fish.
Eighteen teens from around the country had come to the Upper Keys during the last week of June for a week of scuba diving, paddle boarding, a wonderful dolphin experience at Island Dolphin Care, other outdoor activities and even a sunset cruise.
Like other visitors, they ate at some of the popular restaurants, like the Big Chill and Snappers, went souvenir shopping at Shell World to use gift certificates and saw the sights.
They were very busy but did get to enjoy some free time at Ocean Reef, where they were staying with their group leaders that included moms and retired and current military personnel.
This group of teens, however, was not the normal group found in an adventure summer camp. They are Gold Star teens, the children of fallen Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special operations personnel.
The program, called Gold Star Teen Adventures, was created by Kent Solheim, 42, a father of two who was very seriously wounded in combat in Iraq in 2007, ultimately losing his lower right leg.
Solheim, a major who continues to serve in the military’s special operations community, wanted his and other children to be able to experience the bonding and excitement of the skills he learned in special operations.
This is the program’s fourth visit to the Keys.
Solheim’s smile, good looks and physical condition have earned him the nickname at the dive shop of “Captain America.” Interviewing him for this story, I thought, “Gee, this sincere, young-looking guy with the big smile really does look like Captain America.”
The Gold Star Teen Adventures program gives teens the opportunity to learn a variety of outdoor adventure activities and leadership skills in addition to providing them opportunity for emotional healing through interaction with other teens that have lost parents.
The group’s leaders included seven young men and women who attended or just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. The three recent graduates were spending their graduation leave time helping with the program.
I greatly appreciated the help in the pool and ocean of the mentor for my group, Lt. Jasmine Hansen, 22, who was headed to field artillery training after her week in the Upper Keys was over. Watching her poise and pleasant manner, I know she will make an excellent officer.
Jasmine heard about the program from Solheim’s son, who attends West Point.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to spent time with these amazing young people,” she said.
Looking around on the dive boat, I saw that the other groups also were being well-supervised and assisted by their mentors.
Jack, 12, whose father was a Navy SEAL, said: “This is the coolest thing I have ever done.”
I was extremely impressed with how quickly Jack learned diving. I am sure Jack’s dad would be very proud.
“This was truly an amazing experience. The sights were breathtaking,” said Stephen, 16, whose father was a heavy weapons specialist in the Army.
Hannah, 13, whose dad was an Army civil affairs officer, especially liked Molasses reef with “all its colorful fish.”
The best part of scuba diving for Alison, 16, the daughter of an Air Force language specialist, was to “be in the underwater world and see all the different fish and coral.”
I am grateful that, as Solheim said, “the Upper Keys community opened up their arms to make us feel welcome.”
It is the least we can do.
“We are honored to be a part of Gold Star Teen Adventures and hope others continue to support this worthy cause,” said Captain Gary (who with his wife Brenda own Conch Republic Divers in Tavernier), a board member of Gold Star Teen Adventures.