By Amy Binkley | Camp Lejeune Globe | CampLejeuneGlobe.com| July 28, 2011
Hiding in the shadows of those who have gone before them, lies a generation of leaders waiting patiently for their turn to change the world.
Military children are a special breed, carrying the weight and responsibilities of a unique lifestyle, for which they didn’t sign up, with grace and maturity beyond their years.
Children of injured service members, however, have another load added to their pack and little knowledge of how to deal with it.
Retired Maj. Gen. T.S. Jones heard the unvoiced cry for help from the children of injured Marines, and with the sponsorship of the Semper Fi Fund, he invited more than 60 children and teenagers from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune to Outdoor Odyssey, a program designed to teach leadership skills through high adventure and teambuilding, July 6 through 15.
“There are a lot of camps for kids to go to, but this one is different,” said Wendi Mundy, Semper Fi Fund program coordinator. “It’s an all-encompassing leadership experience.”
Outdoor Odyssey’s mission is to create a bond between the youth and mentor with a unique wilderness adventure at their 500-acre Laurel Highland camp in Pennsylvania.
“They are paired up and will continue the relationship throughout the school year,” said Mundy.
The mentors, rising juniors and seniors from military families, came for training several days before the campers to learn important leadership skills and techniques.
During the Leadership Reaction Course, the teens were put through scenarios that tested them both mentally and physically, including a high ropes course where they had to walk on wires 30 feet in the air, and a two-hour hike to their outdoor campsite.
Jones took the opportunity to speak words of wisdom to the new mentors-in-training.
“All men are created equal,” he said. “Unfortunately, all men aren’t treated equally. Our job as mentors is to level the playing field.”
A great leader himself, Jones has learned the value of others through the years and did his best to impart it to the younger group.
“You are not all-important,” he pointed out. “Once you can escape from the center of your own world, you will realize you should reach out to help others.”
These and other lessons stuck with each mentor as they battled through white-water rafting in the rain and an exploration into the depths of Bear Cave which reached 400 feet below ground level at its lowest point.
The most challenging exercise came as the team crawled through a 100 yard tunnel so narrow their shoulders touched the sides, and they had to crawl on their stomachs and could not lift their heads.
After a few intense days of training, mentors were more than ready to welcome their campers, who were ages 8 to 13 and all children of injured service members.
Relationships were made quickly, and most of the kids were open to talking about how they felt concerning their parents and military life in general immediately.
“I think that what Gen. Jones is doing here is a really amazing thing to try and help out the kids of the wounded parents,” said Eric Maxwell, a mentor. “A lot of times people focus on the wounded soldiers and making sure they have everything they need but they don’t really think about the families of those soldiers or how it must feel to go through that kind of experience.”
Throughout the week, the mentors and their campers grew closer as they bonded through trying situations and deep conversations.
“Outdoor Odyssey is fun because we talk about what happened to our dads, and we get to meet people who understand what happened,” said Tyler Gill, a camper. “And we have all these cool activities that use teamwork to get over obstacles.”
The Tower, a course of 50-feet rock walls, cargo nets, rappel walls and a zip line, allowed the campers to face their fears head-on with their mentors cheering them on the entire way.
However, the words of Jones must have been ringing in the ears of the mentors when they returned to Bear Cave with their campers in tow.
“You can fool your superiors most of the time, you can fool your peers much of the time, but you can never fool your subordinates,” he said. “They watch your every move, and if they can tell that you don’t care about them, they will not care to follow you. True leadership and inspiration is impossible without genuine concern.”
With their prior experiences still fresh on their minds, mentors lead their groups through the tiny tunnel assuring and alleviating any concerns as they all worked together to make it out successfully.
The bravery of the young campers was impressive, and after overcoming a week full of trials, the kids and their mentors shared stories, concerns, joys and the common bond only military children can understand.
“When the campers came, it really made me think about my own experiences in the military when my dad deploys,” said mentor Cait Cobb. “I feel like even though we were supposed to be mentoring them, they taught us a lot. It’s been a great experience and a lot of fun.”
Tyler Rytych, a camper, was confronted with many of his fears during camp and was thankful to have a mentor focused on helping him.
“I learned that things can be scary, but you can get over them,” he said. “My mentor was there for me the whole time and she encouraged me.”
The Semper Fi Fund, a program that provides financial assistance to injured Marines and their families while they recover, hopes to continue to send more mentors and campers to Outdoor Odyssey in the future.
They also hope to help continue to raise up a force of young people ready to lead their peers.