EAST MANATEE — Sixteen children of special operations members killed in the Iraq War are taking part in Operation Blackbeard in East Manatee.

The group of Gold Star Teens range in age from 13 to 18 and includes girls and boys who are participating in horseback riding, hunting and other activities. They are drawn from around the United States from a pool of about 130 in the program.

Many of the volunteers running the camp knew the teens’ parents and feel a responsibility to help the youngsters grow in confidence and succeed in the future.

“This is a very personal effort,” retired Col. Kevin McDonnell said. “Many of the dads were lost on our watch.”

But rather than being a grief camp, Operation Blackbeard is about helping the resilient teens develop their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Friday morning, two of the teens — one boy and one girl — each bagged a hog and were dressing the carcasses before noon.

John Barnott, director of the Manatee County Building Department, is volunteering at the camp as a guide and said that his camper bagged the biggest hog of the day.

Black Dagger Military Hunt Club and Gold Star Teen Adventures conduct six or seven of the camps at various locations around the country each year.

Jim Strickland

Jim Strickland

Jim Strickland, manager of the near 5,000-acre Blackbeard’s Ranch off Coker Gulley Road, near Myakka River State Park, said owner Mike Galinski wanted to aid the special operations community by making his ranch available for the camp.

The Gold Star Teens arrived Thursday and are at Blackbeard’s Ranch through Sunday.

In addition to members of the special operations community volunteering to help run the camp, six mentors from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., also are also helping.

“Every single one of them has told me that this is the most valuable thing they have done,” McDonnell said.

Teen Adventures was put together by Kent and Trina Solheim.

“Kent was wounded in Iraq in 2007. He was shot four times and struggled to recover. They saw this as a way to help kids. Kent is still on active duty. They consider themselves lucky because Kent came back,” McDonnell said.

Blackbeard’s Ranch provides something new for campers.

“It is all outdoors, It’s cool to relax and unwind. There are no distractions here,” said Kaylee Henry, who is a Gold Star Teen. She volunteers as a mentor for younger campers.

“It means everything to me, It is important for the Gold Star Teens to get together,” she said.

For more about Black Dagger, visit For more information about Gold Star Teen Adventures, visit

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.
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