CLARKSVILLE — High above the ground, a young girl walks backward on a narrow wooden beam, her ponytail swaying as she works to keep her balance. It’s a daredevil act on the ropes course, but the sweet security of a safety belt makes it fun. A boy spots a bullfrog at the edge of a murky, frond-filled pond and races over to his friends, breathless with excitement. Two girls, arm in arm, tramp down a trail chanting “Throw up the window, stick out my head …” The ditty leaves them helpless with laughter.
But the nightly campfires at Camp Graham bring tears. And the faces of the campers darken when they remember who they are and what they face.
Their parents are U.S. soldiers dodging bullets and bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
|Elena Keller (right) smiles as she walks with fellow campers July 12 during Operation Purple at Camp Wright-Patt in Clarksville. Keller, 14, is from Columbus. Other campers with her (from left) are Alex Berry, 13, from Battle Creek, Mich., and Deja Dyer, 13, from Columbus.|
The camp, a sanctuary tucked in the woods and wilds of Southwest Ohio, is a chance to bond with other kids who miss eating dinner and watching TV with Mom or Dad. Some children refuse to eat macaroni and cheese or other favorite dishes until the parent comes home.
Camp also is a chance to learn to cope with depression, anxiety and nightmares of being notified that their father or mother was killed in combat or of the military taking away their other parent.
“I never knew so many people were going through the same stuff,” Maria Rodriguez, 14, of Mason, Ohio, said softly as campers fired off arrows on the archery range nearby. “It kind of comforts me because now I can break down and cry instead of try to hold it in.”
Her parents are in the Army Reserve. Her father, Abel, is scheduled to go to Iraq this month. Her mother, Wendy, returned from Iraq last summer and may be sent again.
About 155,000 children in the U.S. have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the National Military Family Association, which sponsors the Operation Purple summer camps. At least 40 percent of U.S. soldiers currently deployed have children, according to the Pentagon.
The program — named for the color the military uses to signify inclusion of all branches of service — started with 10 camps and 1,000 children in 2004, the second year of the war. This summer, nearly 4,000 children will attend one of 36 camps in 26 states.
Nine thousand children applied.
The camps are funded by private groups and are free for the children, ages 7-18. Most camps last a week.
Writing journals, painting pictures and even screaming into pillows enables the children to express and vent their feelings. Rope climbing and horseback riding build their confidence so they feel they have some control over their lives.
Bonding by working as a group, campers learn to use Global Positioning System devices to find tie-dyed flags hidden in the woods.
They encourage each other on the ropes course.
“You can do this,” one camper calls as a boy inches his way across a shaky rope bridge with wooden slats. The tension eases as a camper begins singing the Oscar Mayer song.
Campers at Bandera, Texas, are making place mats for the families of wounded soldiers and going caving.
“It’s a chance for them to step out of their comfort zone,” said Ruth Beaudry, co-director of the camp. “It shows them they can be much stronger than they know.”
Along with doing typical camp activities such as canoeing, line dancing and soccer, the children get a taste of how their parents live overseas.
At Camp Graham, they wore red, blue, green or orange dog tags engraved with the words “Operation Purple” and the name of the camp (a hot item) and sampled military rations (roast beef, ravioli, vegetarian).
In a mock deployment, campers at Pine Bush, N.Y., filled out paperwork and received simulated inoculations and fake medications.
They did calisthenics and were lectured on cultural differences in Iraq. (Putting a hand out and gesturing someone to approach you is an offensive gesture.)
Sandra Nencetti, camp director, said the military themes are used to create pride among the campers and make them understand that the military is the bond that brings them together.
At Lake Wenatchee, Wash., campers met with members of a military bomb squad, tried on bomb suits and checked out a robot used to defuse explosives. Campers at Hudson, Wis., climbed into a Blackhawk helicopter, clambered over an obstacle course and had their faces painted in camouflage tones.
At the Ohio camp, there were also typical sights and sounds.
Swimming trunks and towels hung on a clothesline shaded by a canopy of leaves overhead. Basketballs slapped an asphalt court. A whistle cut through the sounds of campers playing.
Kyle Killingsworth’s mother, Theresa, served in Iraq with the Army National Guard for more than a year. Now, the 14-year-old Akron boy is trying to cope with the possibility that she will be sent again in a few months.
“She’s usually the one that makes everybody laugh in my family,” said Killingsworth, wearing a camouflage head wrap and silver-rimmed sunglasses. “And she makes everybody kind of feel normal, so without her it’s kind of empty.”
Elena Keller’s father, Martin, has been deployed overseas three times with the Air National Guard.
“I’ve always been a daddy’s girl,” the 14-year-old from Columbus said. “So whenever I really needed him, he wasn’t there. If I had to ask him a question, I had to wait at least a week for an e-mail.”
Her words stream out at first, but she stops talking abruptly, a slight tremor in her voice.
Kuuipo Ordway, behavior health consultant for Operation Purple who has attended some of the camps, said many of the children are nervous and have trouble concentrating and sleeping because they worry about their parents’ safety or are overwhelmed by the changes in their lives.
Once home, their parents seem different.
“I want to know why the military is making my dad mean,” one 8-year-old girl told Ordway.
Some kids listen to music with headphones on so they don’t hear their mother or father screaming in their sleep. Others stay away from their parents’ bedroom because they might wake up thinking they’re still in combat.
Campers talk about how their parents “freak out” when they are driving and see a paper bag in the road, a flashback to roadside bombs in Iraq. Others describe how their parents moved the furnishings in the house back to exactly where they were before they were sent overseas.
Killingsworth’s parents said their son keeps in touch with friends from Camp Graham so they can support each other. And the camp has enabled him to open up more about his feelings.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said there is a much higher percentage of fathers and mothers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Vietnam, where many of the soldiers were young and single.
“That means there is a much bigger problem with children who have to bear the emotional scars of parents,” Thompson said. “It’s very valuable for children whose parents are in danger to be able to talk to other children who understand what they are going through.”