HIGH VIEW, W.Va. (Army News Service, Aug. 20, 2008) - Kids at Camp Sandy Cove here are spending the week doing typical camp activities such as canoeing, practicing archery, cooking outdoors and even learning the trapeze, but these aren't your typical campers.
The approximately 71 campers here are participating in Operation Purple, summer camps for kids with deployed parents, parents who have recently returned from deployment or parents about to deploy.
Created in 2004 by the National Military Family Association, Operation Purple's free camps are designed to help military "brats" enjoy fun and relaxation while bonding with other kids who understand the rigors of watching parents march off to war and moving every few years. According to organizers, about 10,000 kids are attending 62 camps in 37 states and territories this year, up from last year's 4,000 kids and 37 camps.
"The camp is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said 13-year-old Audrey Zipperer, whose father has deployed twice. "You get to do a lot of things you wouldn't be able to on a normal basis, like horseback riding. It costs quite a bit of money to go horseback riding. Here we get lessons all week long. The kids know how you feel and it's definitely comforting."
"It's really fun and I think it helps a lot of kids whose moms or dads are in the Army," agreed Audrey's nine-year-old sister Abigail. "We talk and stuff. Sometimes at school, a lot of kids don't know what it's like to have your parents in the military. And you move a lot and you have to make new friends all over again. And they don't know how you feel if something happens."
Instead of learning one activity and moving onto the next, campers can choose four to attend every day. Campers participate in such activities as trapeze, archery, skateboarding, horseback riding, gymnastics, self-defense, drama, air rifle and chess.
At the end of the week, campers get awards for their participation, said Tim Glass, program director at Camp Sandy Cove. Kids also get to participate in field trips like a half-day of horseback riding or white-water rafting.
On top of the usual camp activities, organizers also plan military-centric activities to help the kids understand what their parents do for a living, said Glass. Obstacle courses and team-building exercises like guiding a blind-folded friend through a second series of obstacles reflect military training and discipline.
Kids practiced writing letters and postcards to help them keep in touch with deployed parents, made hero posters of their parents and got a true taste of military life with Meals Ready to Eat, which received mixed reviews.
Jacob Gaz, 11, enjoyed eating desert first as he waited for his food to heat, but neighbors ReneAfA Gainey, 13, and Katherine Riley, 12, loved them so much they ate extra MREs.
"It makes you feel like that's what (our parents) are doing so you can do it too," said Katherine, whose father returned from Iraq last week.
Operation Purple also takes advantage of local military assets such as Humvees or helicopters or military working dogs. Four Marines brought two Bradleys to Camp Sandy Cove to cheers from one cabin of boys. They were able to climb on one of the vehicles and even try on a helmet and Kevlar vest as the Marines answered their many questions.
"Just seeing the big thing" was nine-year-old Ethan Gaz's favorite activity. His mother is in the Army Reserve and spent a year in Kuwait in 2005 and he said being around "his own type," makes him feel better.
"Now that I'm in high school and they don't really have high schools on base, you don't really make as many friends who actually have military backgrounds," added 16-year-old Jeremy Beale. "It's just cool, having friends again who have parents who have been deployed and stuff like that."
Jeremy's mother is currently deployed to Iraq for the third time, and his father has also deployed.
According to Glass, the camp has been a huge success for both the kids and the staff. He said he was especially impressed by how much more respectful military kids are than his regular campers.
"It's been awesome. There's a different respect level we get from these kids," Glass said. "We get a lot of 'yes sirs' and 'no sirs.' They are very, very respectful kids.
"The kids are extremely appreciative of it. They seem to really love it and our staff is totally in to this and just spending time with these kids and showing the kids that we do care about them. This is a way I see that we're helping out our country too," he said, adding that realizing how many family members also go through deployment, has brought things closer to home for him.
(Editor's note: These Army kids will talk about their life in the military in a second article to appear Thursday.)