To bring smiles to military families who have lost so much, eight swimmers including active-duty Green Berets and wounded warriors will spend long hours in Florida Keys water on Veterans Day weekend.
"It's about helping kids who have lost their fathers get together, laugh and have a good time," said Gary Mace, local coordinator for the 50-kilometer Freedom Swim on Nov. 9 and 10.
The first Freedom Swim raises money for the Gold Star Teen Adventures foundation, dedicated to improving the lives of "children of special-operations service members who lost their lives in the line of duty."
Mace, owner of Conch Republic Divers in Tavernier, began helping wounded military members learn to scuba dive in 2008. He began working with Kent Solheim, an 18-year U.S. Army veteran who remains on active duty after losing a leg to gunfire during a 2007 tour in Iraq.
Solheim, part of the relay team swimming in Florida Bay off Islamorada's Founders Park, formed Gold Star Teen Adventures to help children whose family members did not return alive.
Solheim realized "he would have wanted for his children to know the caliber of men he had worked with, and wanted them to the have opportunity to be a part of unique and enriching experiences," said Cecilia Wolff, Gold Star's public-affairs coordinator.
One of the group's first major events was a July trip to the Upper Keys, where teenagers and family members learned to scuba dive and swam with dolphins.
"One of the kids said that every time they get together with other Gold Star families, it's a memorial or other somber event," Mace said. "This was the first time they were able to laugh and be kids together."
Money raised by swimmers through pledges in the 50K Freedom Swim will provide support for other dive trips in the Keys and Caribbean, survival-training camping in North Carolina and sailing off Texas. Backers aim to raise from $80,000 to $100,000.
From 1 p.m. Nov. 10 to 1 p.m. Nov. 11, swimmers will alternate on a 400-meter course with the goal of swimming a total of nearly 32 miles in 24 hours.
Residents are welcome to visit the swim, and some volunteers are needed. GO to www.gstadventures.org.
Gold Star Teen Adventures is open to family members of fallen special-operations personnel from the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), 75th Army Ranger Regiment, Marines and Air Force special operations, U.S. Navy SEALS and small-boat teams, among others.