By CHRIS MENEES
Fallen Navy SEAL Aaron Vaughn loved children.
He doted on his sister’s firstborn daughter and, once he became a father, adored his own two children.
So there’s no doubt he’d be pleased with a new children’s camp being launched in his honor.
Vaughn — an Obion County native who died Aug. 6, 2011, when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan — is the inspiration for Operation 300.
Vaughn’s sister, Tara (Vaughn) Baldwin of Stuart, Fla., said the crash which claimed her brother’s life also killed 29 other servicemen on board the helicopter. Like Vaughn, most of them were members of an elite Navy SEAL team.
Mrs. Baldwin said that single incident left 40 children without fathers — among them Vaughn’s two young children, son Reagan, who was 2 years old at the time, and daughter Chamberlyn, who was then only 2 months old.
Several hundred service members have died in the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many of them leaving young children behind.
That’s where Operation 300 hopes to help.
Operation 300 is a non-profit foundation designed to create a week-long experience for children who have lost their fathers as a result of service to their nation.
The camp will provide “an opportunity to participate in activities that embody the spirit of adventure that characterized the lives of their absent fathers while fostering a culture of courage, strength, freedom, endurance, honor and Godly morality embodied by fearless patriots throughout the history of our American Republic,” according to its website, www.operation300.com.
The name Operation 300 was inspired by Navy SEAL Vaughn’s first tattoo: Molon Labe (mo-lone lah-veh). The ancient Greek phrase was spoken by King Leonidas I as his Greek Army of 300 was surrounded by the 600,000- plus invading Persian Army led by Persian Emperor Xerxes I. Offered the chance to have their lives spared if they would lay down their arms, Leonidas responded to Xerxes with the phrase “Molon Labe,” which means “come and get them.” It is not only a phrase of defiance but also a phrase that symbolizes the ability of the human spirit to overcome insurmountable odds.
Operation 300 will kick off as a summer camp for boys who have lost their fathers in some type of military service, giving them an opportunity to heal from that loss and learn the things their fathers aren’t here to teach, according to Mrs. Baldwin.
The camp would operate at no cost to the children and include a week filled with outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and hunting. Mrs. Baldwin said the camp will also try to create a culture of courage, adventure and patriotism.
“Our goal is any child who comes to camp could come at no cost,” she said. “We hope it will be something where kids from all over the nation can come.”
While the effort will begin as a camp for boys, those involved would eventually like to do something similar for girls, too.
“It really just came from the realization that my brother is no longer around to teach his son how to hunt and fish and ride four-wheelers and horses, the things he loved to do,” said Mrs. Baldwin, an Obion County native who moved from the area to Florida midway through her freshman year at Obion County Central High School in the 1990s.
She is the daughter of Karen and Billy Vaughn Jr. of Stuart, formerly of Obion County. Her grandparents are Geneva and Billy Vaughn Sr. of Union City and Evelyn Rodenberger of Knoxville and the late Frank Rodenberger, also formerly of Obion County.
Mrs. Baldwin said the fact that 40 children lost their fathers in that one single incident in Afghanistan in August 2011 made a significant impact on her.
“I started thinking about other kids in the same situation,” she said. “I realized there wasn’t anything like this to help them. There are lot of things for veterans and their families, which is wonderful, but there was nothing for kids. I started thinking about what Aaron would have done.”
Mrs. Baldwin recalled her brother loved children and she has hundreds of photos of him with her older daughter, who is now 6 and was the first grandchild in her immediate family.
“She just hung the moon, to him,” she said. “Anytime he was around, he was such a big kid. We always said that, how he kind of forced all of us as adults to be kids all the time.”
She said she knows Vaughn would have been pleased with Operation 300 and what it hopes to provide.
“Something like this — something about having fun, doing crazy things, teaching kids how to have fun — would have absolutely been right up his alley,” she said.
Mrs. Baldwin said after much prayer, what started as casual conversation among family has evolved into an effort which is gaining momentum and is overseen by an executive board that includes Mrs. Baldwin as president and her father as vice president, as well as an advisory board that includes U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, a U.S. representative from Florida.
“It’s really been amazing,” she said. “We’re off to a great start.”
How to help
Operation 300 was recently offered the use of a 400-acre property in Stuart, about two miles from Mrs. Baldwin’s home.
“It’s amazing, more than we ever could have dreamed of,” she said.
While it’s a good development, the offer to use the camp also propels the project forward at a rapid pace — which means Operation 300 is in need of funding and equipment right now.
Mrs. Baldwin said there is a need for camping equipment, fishing and hunting gear, all-terrain vehicles, tack for horses and other outdoor-type gear that can be utilized for recreational activities at the camp. Money would also be welcomed to purchase these supplies.
To arrange to make an equipment donation, email Mrs. Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monetary donations may be made via PayPal by visiting the Operation 300 website at www.operation300.com and clicking on the “donate” button.
Gift card or monetary donations may also be sent to Operation 300 Inc., P.O. Box 3, Port Salerno, FL 34992.
Mrs. Baldwin said God has opened doors from the very beginning of the concept and it has been exciting to watch people become involved as they step out on faith and in obedience.
“We put a lot of prayer into this,” she said. “We talked at the beginning, really early in 2012, and none of us felt like we were in a place to take on something like this. We didn’t know where to go or how to start. I guess in about September, I felt like God was laying it on my heart to take a couple small steps in the right direction, and one thing just led to another from that.
“There is no denying this is what we felt like God wanted us to do. There have just been so many God things along the way.”
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 12.24.12