EDEN — When Rachael Stets lost her father two years ago, she had a hard time finding peers who could understand what she was going through.
But this week at a special camp in the Ogden Valley, she found 10 other kids who are truly empathetic to her pain.
The 17-year-old from North Carolina was one of 11 children participating in a summer camp at the Swanson Environmental Center to learn leadership skills and work with mentors to help them prepare for college.
The kids, ranging in age from 15 to 20, are all sons and daughters of special operations forces military personnel who were killed in action.
Special operations personnel include members of the Navy SEALS, Air Force commandos, Army Green Berets and Marine Special Operations Regiment.
Stets’ father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Alan Stets Jr., was killed in Pakistan in February 2010.
Stets said the members of the camp have bonded immediately.
“When I first got to camp, things seemed a little sketchy,” she said. “I didn’t know if I’d fit in here, but we’ve actually all gotten really close, really fast.”
Stets said the bond comes from the rare set of circumstances shared by the campers.
“When you’ve lost a parent the way we have, there really isn’t a lot of people out there who can understand what you’re dealing with,” she said. “It’s one of those things that you have to go through to fully understand, and we’ve all gone through it.”
The camp, called Warrior Outdoor Leadership for the Future, is sponsored by the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc., based in Tampa, Fla.
The foundation provides full scholarships and educational and family counseling to children of special operations personnel killed in action, as well as immediate financial assistance to severely wounded special operations personnel and their families.
During their week at camp, the kids received mountain awareness safety training from Weber County Search and Rescue members, floated in canoes at Pineview Reservoir and did some hiking and mountain biking.
The camp will culminate today with a visit to the iFLY skydiving simulator, iCLIMB rock climbing wall and Flowrider surfing simulator at The Junction in downtown Ogden.
Later tonight, the group will meet country music star Toby Keith before his performance at the USANA Amphitheater in Salt Lake City.
Stets’ fellow camper, 15-year-old Michigan resident Tristen Harper, said the camp has helped him to start seriously thinking about his future education.
“I’ve always kind of said I wanted to go to college, but this week I’ve kind of had this awakening, and I’m actually excited to go now,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons my dad served in the military, to be able to send me to college, so I think I owe it to him.”
Harper’s father, Army Staff Sgt. Gary Ray Harper, was killed in October 2005 in Baghdad.
Melinda Scofield, who works with the Warrior Foundation, said Harper is a prime example of what the organization aims to accomplish.
“Having their college paid for is a huge stress relief for the kids and their families,” she said. “But we want to do more than just pay for it. We want to get them ready for college and excited about it.”
For more information about the foundation, visit www.specialops.org.