Flying it Forward

Steve Harrold

Steve Harrold

A U.S. Air Force pilot helps the children of fallen soldiers to spread their wings

Steve Harrold is a soft-spoken man with a strong faith and a humble demeanor. He and his wife Suzanne have two teenage sons, and when Steve talks about them, he doesn’t reel off a list of their accomplishments. He tells you about the qualities and character traits he admires in each of them.

The Harrold family: Steve, Tanner, Suzanne and Jake. 

The Harrold family: Steve, Tanner, Suzanne and Jake. 

For most of his life, Steve coasted along, enjoying his family, an exciting career as an Air Force pilot, and plenty of adventure, including rock climbing and snowboarding. He invested most of his time and energy into his immediate family, and says it never really occurred to him to look beyond them to the wider community.

Then, on the 27th of November, 2006, a man by the name of Major Troy Lee "Trojan" Gilbert was killed in combat in Iraq, leaving behind his wife and five children who were all under the age of 10.

Steve and Troy hadn’t been particularly close, but they were stationed together in Arizona for three years. They would chat at work functions, often about their shared Christian faith or raising their children, especially their sons who were similar ages. The two men lived at opposite ends of the city and didn’t socialise outside of work, but at the time Troy was killed, Steve was reading a book he had recommended about raising boys—and happened to be on a chapter discussing the effects of being raised without a father.

“I went back down to his memorial service and it was very powerful,” Steve recalls. “All those things compounded and I thought, I’ve got to do something for his boys. I didn’t even really know them that well, but we had spent so much time talking about raising them…”

Knights of Heroes, which draws its name from the book Troy recommended, was formed in 2007. Each year kids who have lost their fathers during military service attend a week-long wilderness adventure camp in Colorado.  The mission is to empower them though positive adult mentorship, character development, and lasting friendships.

Knights of Heroes campers rafting.

Knights of Heroes campers rafting.

At the start there were lots of unknowns.  What if no one wanted to attend? What if they couldn’t raise enough money?

“We decided that if we had to, we would pay for it the first year,” Steve remembers. They spread the word and in the end received $16,000 in donations— exactly enough to cover the costs of the 16 boys who attended the camp.

The program has grown ever since, with 70 campers in 2012, and almost 100 in 2013. A girls program launched in 2010, and there’s also a program for moms, complete with horseback riding, white water rafting and other adventures.

There were some teething problems that first year. Some of the campers were really young, had never been away from their mom and needed a significant amount of attention, for example. Now Knights of Heroes have minimum age requirements and an application process to ensure the program is a good fit for the campers.

“If you have a boy whose step-dad was killed but his biological dad is still in his life and they have good relationship, or if it’s been a really long time and the mom has remarried—and all the other kids are sitting around talking about how they miss their father, they don’t feel like they’re sharing that common bond,” Steve explains. “You’ve got to bring the right combination of people together.”

Sometimes it’s in the kids’ best interest not to attend, he adds: “If they’re doing well and they learn to accept the new normal, they may actually be worse off if they come back and they’re surrounded by people who are not quite at the place where they are.”

Knights of Heroes girls program camper climbing.

Knights of Heroes girls program camper climbing.

Organising the camp is a time consuming affair. For nine months a year, Steve wakes early and spends one to two hours a day working on the administration, finances and sponsorships. In the last few weeks before the camp each year, it’s significantly more than that.

But despite all the work, the emails and Facebook messages he gets from kids months later, who remember the details of conversations he’s long since forgotten, make it worth it. Many of the campers and mentors have described the value of the camp on their lives in detailed reviews online.

And then there are stories like that of Noah, the youngest boy who attended the Knights of Heroes camp in the very first year. He was 6, and it had only been 10 months since his father was killed.

“I’d never met him before,” Steve recalls. “Their flight was delayed and they showed up at 11oclock at night and it was pouring rain at the camp.” That set the stage for a difficult week in a trying time in Noah’s life—he struggled through. But the next year he was back, and he’s come back every year since.

“For five years I couldn’t get him to rock climb---he would go up just fine, but he wouldn’t trust me to belay him back down,” Steve says. “That’s something we’ve found with rock climbing—if they won’t go up they lack the confidence, and if they won’t come down they don’t trust you.”

For years Noah would sit on the rock and wait for Steve to climb up, connect him to his harness and bring him back down.

“Then last year he got it and we couldn’t stop him! He was climbing 90-foot cliffs and bouncing down—trusting me finally to belay him back down and loving it and yelling and hooting,” Steve says. “That is a breakthrough—It was incredible to see him smiling.”

To Steve it was a metaphor for something bigger: “He had gotten to the point where he was able to trust again and it was displayed through that.”

Steve belaying a camper. 

Steve belaying a camper. 

The kids aren’t the only ones who’ve experienced change since the camp began.

 “I’ve come to believe if you’re not serving society, then what are you doing? Especially someone like me who’s been blessed beyond comprehension, I mean how do I not take what I’ve been given and make life better for other people?” Steve says.  “That wasn’t me before, I was extremely self-centred and it was all about my family and myself."

“I didn’t have a whole lot of compassion, maybe because I didn’t know people who needed help, and if I didn’t know them It didn’t affect me,” he adds. “Now my heart goes out every time.”

For more information check out http://www.knightsofheroes.org/.

Note: In keeping with one of the theme's of this blog, I met Steve randomly at a backpacker in the Blue Mountains earlier this year. Had the weather not been terrible that weekend,  Steve's rock climbing plans would not have been cancelled and I would never have known of the impact the unassuming guy reading the climbing book has had on so many lives.