By Megan Locke Simpson, Fort Campbell CourierJuly 11, 2014
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- As 12-year-old Nate Vargas runs to tag a teammate as part of a competition at Camp Hinsch June 9, it seems like a typical summer day.
That is the feel that organizers of Fort Campbell's Survivor Outreach Services Summer Camp hope to provide for the 8- to 13-year-old children in attendance despite the unspoken fact that each camper is here because of the death of a military parent, often in actions overseas during Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom.
Fort Campbell SOS Program Manager Suzy Yates said achieving a sense of normalcy and fun for children who have already been through a tough experience is the purpose behind the camp, which began four years ago. SOS teams up with Fort Campbell's Armed Forces YMCA and Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation to provide the experience.
This year, 16 campers stayed overnight at Camp Hinsch outside Gate 10 for the annual week of activities.
"We all come together to benefit the surviving children, to let them know that it's OK to have fun," Yates said. "Even after they experience something as tragic as the loss of a parent, that it's OK to let their guard down and just be a kid."
Unlike some similar camps, this one focuses on fun more than grief, although there are resources available to deal with these emotions.
"It's really about creating those common bonds between the kids," Yates said.
For Nate, this camaraderie is what makes his second year at SOS Camp so enjoyable.
"It's a lot smoother, because they get how it is. Like I said, it makes you feel comfortable," he said.
"They know how it is in your situation."
SOS Camp allows participants to focus on being children, and it gives them a place to shake free of the labels that may come along with being a Gold Star Family member.
"It's a getaway," Nate added. "It's better than being at home -- [where there's] really nothing else to do but play your Xbox and stuff."
Throughout the week, participants experienced a typical summer camp. They traveled to a local farm, where the children got the opportunity to fish and horseback ride. On post, the group went bowling and ate lunch with NFL players Cortez Allen and Andre Roberts, who were hosting a football camp. A trip to Hopkinsville water park, Tie Breaker Family Aquatic Center, capped off the week.
Accompanying the children to every activity and participating with them in daily team challenges were Soldiers from throughout the 101st Sustainment Brigade. The Soldiers volunteered to serve as counselors for SOS Camp.
Specialist Juan Correa, with Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, said the opportunity is a good way to gain more skills outside regular military training. It is also a great way to have fun and bond with the children.
"The kids obviously, they might wear you out, but in the end it's still worth it," he said. "… One of the kids, his name is Gabe. He's very competitive when it comes to me. He tries to strive for everything that I do."
Many of the campers lost their fathers, so having a positive role model that is a Soldier is another great aspect of this opportunity, Yates said.
"It's important for us to give them the experiences -- like fishing, like going to the farm," she said. "Some things that they may do with that parent and have it be Soldiers that are volunteering step into that role and teach them how to fish, teach them how to ride a horse."
Another counselor, 541st Transportation Company Pfc. Noelle Slater, volunteered this year after her sergeant told her about the camp. With just about eight months in the Army, Slater said she can connect with these children since her own father his currently deployed to Afghanistan.
"I like to think about the reason why these kids are here constantly to keep everything in perspective," she said. "… If I can contribute and help them have a good time away from anything they might be facing still at home and kind of let them let go of all that for even just a week … that's just nice to be a part of."
SOS is an Army Community Service program specifically designed to provide long-term support to the Families of fallen Soldiers, also known as Gold Star Families. Other activities such as Gold Star Family Appreciation Week and the Hero and Remembrance Run, Walk or Roll (see box) are examples of how surviving Family members are continually included in Army life. For more information about SOS or its services, call (270) 798-0272.
"I think it's a great way for our community to give back and let these kids know they might have lost their parent, but that's not going to define who they are," Yates said of SOS Camp. "It's a piece of who they are."