LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

WESTON -- The three daughters of a Merrill soldier who was killed in Iraq thought they were just going for a leisurely boat ride last fall as part of a support program for children of fallen veterans.

They had no idea one of their fellow passengers would be a world-famous athlete beloved by their classmates.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hopped aboard the cruise on a private yacht on Lake Michigan near Milwaukee to surprise Army Spc. Grant Dampier's children, Alexis, 14, Starr, 12, and Kylee, 9, along with Dylan Simon, the son of Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Simon. A video of the event is posted on the website itsAaron.com.

Dampier, who was born in Wisconsin Rapids and grew up there and in Merrill, died in May 2006 from injuries sustained in a roadside bomb blast. He was 25. Simon died in August 2005, also from a roadside bomb blast.

The trip was organized through Camp Hometown Heroes, a Grafton-based nonprofit agency that helps children of members of the U.S. military who died while serving. Hometown Heroes includes camps and other events that bring the children together to bond, to help process the loss and to grieve. Rodgers and Milwaukee attorney David Gruber are using the itsAaron.comvideo series to create awareness for Wisconsin nonprofit organizations and the people they help.

In the video, Alexis and Starr played it cool when meeting Rodgers, while Dylan's face lighted up and he blurted out "Oh, my gosh," when he recognized the star quarterback. Kylee wasn't exactly sure who Rodgers was at first, said the girls' mother, Heidi Dampier, 33, who accompanied the children on the cruise.

But later, Kylee told Rodgers that "there are these kids in my class who love football and are a fan of you."

"Oh, really?" Rodgers said. "Are you not a fan of football?"

"Not really," Kylee said. "There's too much going on."

"Yeah," Rodgers said. "There's a lot going on. You're right."

The scene underscored the connection Rodgers made with the kids.

"It think it's incredible (that he participated in the project)," Heidi Dampier said. "I mean, his reaction to those kids. He's so down-to-earth and sweet."

The Dampiers live in Weston with Heidi Dampier's fiance and their son, Ian Schmidt, 4.

The goal of the Camp Hometown Heroes piece is to spur donations to the organization so it can help more children.

Camp Hometown Heroes has played a important role in helping the Dampier girls to deal with their father's death. The girls bond with other kids who have gone through the same tragedy in their lives. Camp Hometown Heroes lets them know "they're not alone," Heidi Dampier said. "They can develop these friendships with someone who truly understands."

The video with Rodgers underscores the lasting consequences of war and loss, and Heidi Dampier appreciates that message.

"People say they don't forget," Heidi Dampier said. "And people remember in general. But they don't see it every day. It's nice that somebody's out there making a huge difference."

Keith Uhlig can be reached at 715-845-0651. Find him on Twitter as @UhligK. Jeff Ash of Gannett Wisconsin Media contributed

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE