Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=139161
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 2:03:38 PM CST
HIGH VIEW, W. Va. -- Katherine has a lot on her mind as she sits under a shady tree near the pond. The counselors are setting the rules for canoeing, but the 15-year-old doesn’t seem to notice. She looks distracted.
While she and her younger brothers—ages 7 and 11—enjoy camp this week, there’s much to be done at home. Both of her parents are in the military. Her stepfather, an air medic, is deployed again and it’s uncertain when he’ll return. While he’s away, her mother is busy with work, leaving Katherine and her brothers to pick up the slack.
She would like more time to work with horses, but it’s hard running the West Virginia family farm alone. Her brothers are still too small to do the heavy lifting, she said.
“This is probably going to sound weird,” she said, cracking a thin smile. “But it’s almost normal for us.”
Though it may seem normal, military life is no less difficult. It’s a big sacrifice for her family. Just talking about it, her eyes redden and tear up.
The story of military deployment most often turns to the soldiers and the sacrifices they make in the line of duty. But for the parents, spouses and children left at home, the sacrifice is just as significant.
The nearly 150 children and teens at Operation Purple camp are all too aware. Their parents’ service is what’s drawn them to the wooded mountains in eastern West Virginia. There they’ll spend the week with other military kids talking about their families.
For kids like Katherine, it’s a chance to share experiences and learn about their parents’ work, all while enjoying the rugged, 187-acre campground.
Most of the summer, Camp Sandy Cove is home to Christian camps, but in early August it’s one of 62 sites for Operation Purple. The National Military Families Association, which coordinates Operation Purple, this summer expects to serve more than 10,000 children ages 7 to 16. All of those children have parents recently or currently deployed overseas.
“I almost feel guilty I haven’t served in the military,” said Tim Nielsen, camp coordinator at Sandy Cove. “But here’s an opportunity to serve those who serve our country.”
Kids spend most of the free, one-week camp on the usual activities such as canoeing, horseback riding and martial arts. At Sandy Cove, campers can even learn about the trapeze. The week also allows campers to meet military personnel, perform community service and recognize their parents’ sacrifices.
During lunch, Jonah, 12, shows off the Wall of Honor, where the campers post pictures of their military parents. Jonah looks small for his age, but he’s deep in thought when discussing his dad’s long deployments with the Navy.
“It’s scary,” Jonah said. “You worry that something bad will happen.”
Jonah points to a picture of himself and his dad and says they go fishing and hunting when he’s home. Jonah wants to be a helicopter pilot when he grows up.
For families like Jonah’s and Katherine’s, the deployment process can be long and stressful.
Doubts about a parent’s safety are only part of the equation. With a family member away, children and spouses pick up the daily chores such as banking, lawn mowing and transportation to and from school. In some cases, older children become like a second parent, said Nielsen, the camp coordinator.
According to a 2007 study by the American Psychological Association, nearly half a million children have a family member deployed. During a parent’s deployment, the study suggests, kids face a number of behavioral issues. Younger children often suffer mood shifts and sleeping disorders, while older children may act withdrawn and lose interest in school.
Even when a family member returns, similar issues arise as the children cope with separation anxiety and adjustments to home life, the study suggests.
“It’s really an emotional issue when we return,” said Capt. Richard Switzer, of the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Switzer was deployed several times to Afghanistan and Iraq. He returned from his latest deployment earlier this year, he said, and found a strained relationship with his sons, now 2 and 4. They sometimes acted unusually while he was gone, he said, and they suffered separation anxiety when he returned. When Switzer would leave a room, his youngest son would ask where Switzer was going and how long he would be gone, he said.
This summer, Switzer is working closer to home and giving back to families like his. Now a camp counselor, he spent the afternoon talking with campers, telling them what it’s like when serving overseas. The talk, he said, helps kids better understand their parents’ deployment.
“It provides a level of comfort to them,” he said.
During a talk with the younger campers, he showed pictures of his base, the mess hall and desert sandstorms. He asked the children how their parents passed the time and how it feels to be distant from family.
“What kinds of things do you think we missed while we were gone?” Switzer asked.
“My birthday,” several kids responded. Others counted off the various holidays, birthdays and special occasions their parents missed while serving overseas.
Some of the kids appear tired on this hot summer day. Others look teary-eyed and deep in thought as they glimpse into their parents’ lives. The counselors encourage campers to keep in touch with family during the week. There’s a computer in the dining hall where they can email deployed parents, perhaps asking about things they learned at camp.
Melanie Doughty, a parent staying at the camp, said the experience helped her 11-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter open up about their family. Her husband is deployed with the West Virginia Army National Guard and was earlier deployed with the Marines.
“They’ve gotten to talk to other kids who are going through the same experience,” Doughty said. “I know they’re having fun.”
While Operation Purple offers an outlet for military families, it’s one of many resources available for those with deployed family members. Defense Department programs and independent non-profit groups are also contributing to military families, veterans and deployed troops.
On base, families can find counseling services, spousal support groups and the Family Readiness Group, which briefs parents, spouses and children on what to expect during deployment.
A number of online resources, including Military Home Front and Military One Source, connect families with Defense Department resources, including program information and self-help guides. Producers from the Sesame Street television show also created a video to help young children understand deployment.
“Our hope is to touch the children by helping their parents or family,” said Bobbi Park, a California military mother who coordinates donations for soldiers.
The mother of a retired Marine, Park and her volunteers’ mail care packages to deployed soldiers and connect military families with counseling and medical services. She got involved when her son enlisted in 2001, as she sought support from other military families.
“I had to find other like-minded people or I would have lost my mind,” said Park. “I have to do this and help these families.”
Other groups, including Operation Mom and Soldiers’ Angels, provide similar services. Launched by mothers of veterans, the projects began as support networks, in much the same way the kids connect at camp.
“It’s important just to be there to support each other,” said Dotty Selmeczski, founder of Operation Mom. “The feeling [of having a loved one at war] never goes away.”
Since 2004, the National Military Family Association has run Operation Purple as a support network for military families. Five years later, children are still finding a common bond in each others’ company.
Hidden away in these mountains, camp is a sort of escape from the outside world. Here, they’re a land away from extra chores, caring for younger siblings and watching the news, praying that loved ones are safe. These children seem mature beyond their age, with a very real sense of the danger their parents face.
“[Camp] is really rewarding,” said Switzer, the Air National Guard father. “You don’t have to think about being a military kid.”
Considering how quickly they mature, it’s sometimes easy to forget they are, after all, just kids. But that’s what draws campers like Jonah here in the first place. Sometimes, kids just have to be kids.
“We just cope through,” Jonah said.