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The Few, the Proud, the Summer Campers

With Mom or Dad in combat, kids get an outlet, and a chance to meet each other.

August 01, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — It was 0530, reveille hour for sleepers in the tents pitched at one end of this base in the Florida Panhandle, home of elite Air Force commando units.

The dozers, from the Air Force and Army, had crawled into their cots late the night before after a long session of "manhunt" in the dark. A challenging day of wall climbing and orienteering by compass through the woods lay ahead. A supervisor decided against rousing them by beating on garbage cans. After all, none was older than 15.

At breakfast, however, they would have to fend for themselves. As a pink blush rose in the sky over the Gulf of Mexico, the teenagers, rubbing sleep from their eyes, were shown how to cook their own omelets by putting eggs, ham and other fixings inside a heavy-duty plastic bag, and plunging the mixture into boiling water.

"This is cool," Mark Davison, 14, said of the discoveries he was making at Operation Endurance Adventure Camp. "Trying things that are new, that's very exciting to me."

They also serve: the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel who have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and other far-flung postings. This summer, from the Pennsylvania hills to the Pacific island of Guam, a free and innovative camp program has been launched to address these children's needs, in part by bringing them together to show them they are not alone.

The youth camps, known collectively as Operation Purple, were created to help service families and their children cope with the longest, most frequent deployments in the history of the all-volunteer military. Families with a loved one in Reserve or National Guard units have also had to manage with the most widespread mobilization since the Korean War.

"Any kind of separation in a family is stressful," said John M. Molino, deputy U.S. undersecretary of Defense. "The fact Mom or Dad may be going into a dangerous situation, that makes it even more complex."

Military children may find themselves with new, grown-up responsibilities. They may deeply feel their father's or mother's absence at a soccer game or school play, at bedtime or the holidays. And, of course, there is the worry of loss.

"Children have a natural fear, and real needs and concerns about what is going on with their parent," said Julia Pfaff of the National Military Family Association, a private not-for-profit group. "Even in an environment where Mom turns the news off, it's impossible to get away from it 100%."

The Pentagon says two-thirds of active-duty service families now live off base, where their children may have few friends who comprehend the special stresses they may have been under since Sept. 11. In addition, military children may not really understand what their parent does for a living.

To address the unique needs of these boys and girls, and give them some summer fun as well, the family association, with Pentagon support and private sector money, devised Operation Purple. Purple, in military jargon, means something that applies to all branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard. Children with parents in Reserve or National Guard units were also welcome.

"Part of it is to help kids understand that they too are serving," Pfaff said. Camps in 11 states and Guam have been organized through August. About 1,000 children, ages 6 to 17, are expected to participate for periods of two to five days.

The first, Camp Keystone Courage, was in Wernersville, Pa., with former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, Operation Purple's official spokeswoman, as guest of honor.

The camps offer swimming, hiking, arts and crafts and other typical camp fare but also activities designed for youngsters separated from parents because of service obligations. Children may be asked to speak about their parents' deployment or asked to express their feelings through art. At Keystone Courage, the camp doctor wore his desert camouflage uniform to prove to the 156 children that he had served his deployment and returned safely.

"We didn't want it to be heavy. We didn't want it to be school. We wanted it to be an outlet for the kids," Pfaff said.

Here at Hurlburt, headquarters of the Air Force Special Operations Command, camp leaders emphasize the local specialty -- commando-like activities. "Why not challenge the kids? Show them in life you can get out there and do the same things they do in video games," said Del Mucci, a former Air Force pararescuer who's in charge of youth programs at the base. (Pararescue personnel help wounded soldiers, going in with medical aid by land or parachute.)

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