NORTH EAST, Md. -- From morning exercises and proper camouflage application, to preparing Meals Ready to Eat and learning Army cadences, 100 military children attending Operation Purple Camp at Elk Neck State Park dove headfirst into "Military Experience Day," Aug. 16, with the help of volunteer battle buddies from Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Maryland National Guard.
Sponsored by the National Military Family Association, Operation Purple Camps across the nation give military children a free week of summer camp. The program at Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County, Maryland, was hosted by NorthBay Adventure Camp, Aug. 14-19.
Soldiers and civilians from several APG organizations took pause from normal mission activities to support the children of U.S. service members and provide a Military Experience Day to remember.
The day kicked off with the official raising of the flag to Reveille, followed by breakfast in the chow hall. The children then "marched" to the camp's beach. With sirens blaring and water hose at full blast, APG Garrison Commander Col. James E. Davis and Command Sgt. Maj. Toese Tia Jr., arrived via APG fire rescue boat to greet the campers, wearing facial camouflage. The children donned matching camouflage paint, waved American flags and cheered for their guests.
Davis and Tia said it was important to them to participate in the event, which was also open to the families of the campers.
"We do deployments, we do the hard things," Davis said, "but the family does the harder part, the home front. It's just awesome to see the kids smile, see the kids get excited and start to bond about the different languages they spoke, to the different places they've lived. It immediately draws them together because they're unique."
"The most important thing for me is connecting with the kids; looking at it from their lens," he said. "When you see them together, smiling, interacting, and supporting each other… it's pretty powerful."
After chatting with the kids and sharing similarities, Davis and Tia joined the campers for the morning's activities.
Units set up interactive stations, allowing children to experience different aspects of military training. Additional Soldiers served as cadre, spending the entire day with a single "squad" of children as they traveled from station to station. The cadre answered questions, facilitated team building and encouraged campers to swap stories about life as military children.
Soldiers from the Alpha Battery 3rd Air Defense Artillery taught groups of children basic P.T., or physical training, exercises. Davis joined the children in several exercises including the high jumper, the rower, and the bend and reach, as Tia cheered them on.
At the inflatable obstacle course managed by the Maryland National Guard, kids ran, jumped, rolled, and climbed their way to victory. At another station, campers learned about the history of the protective mask and raced to properly put on their masks to Army standard -- in less than nine seconds. According to 1st Sgt. Richard R. Bernard from APG Garrison Headquarters and Headquarters Company who manned the station, a camper from Elk Ridge, Maryland, named Darrin Martone, put on his mask on quicker than some Soldiers.
Civilians from Aberdeen Test Center explained several military vehicles as the kids climbed inside an MATV, Stryker and Humvee. Soldiers from Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic taught basic field first aid, and land navigation skills were explained by Soldiers from the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command. Soldiers from the 46th Chemical Company, 22d Chemical Battalion, 48th Chemical Brigade displayed explosive ordnance disposal technologies, including a robot. Other stations included cadence writing, camouflage application, and drill & ceremony.
---AT THE LANDING ZONE---
After lunch campers marched to the landing zone singing cadences learned earlier in the day, where they greeted the Adjutant General of Maryland, Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, who arrived by helicopter.
Singh asked the children about the places they have lived, their favorite camp activities so far and whether any children had parents who are currently deployed; several did. She said she appreciates the sacrifices made by military families.
"Together you all make up what we call a 'joint team' because you have representation from all the services based on your parents," she said after taking a show of hands for children of service members from the individual branches.
Maryland Army National Guard Pilots Chief Warrant Officer 3 Patrick Fisher and 1st Lt. Stephen Sauve talked to the children about the helicopter, a UH-72A Lakota, as the kids reveled in the opportunity to climb aboard and sit in the pilot's seat.
The sweltering heat and humidity drove afternoon activities indoors; Soldiers played games with the children, and Sgt. John F. Knight and Staff Sgt. Terrace Tolbert from the 20th CBRNE Command, showed children the Army's primary ration, Meals, Ready to Eat, or MREs.
---LIFE AS A MILITARY CHILD---
Rachel Walter, 10, daughter of Staff Sgt. Thomas Walter, with the Aberdeen Test Center, said she appreciates all the opportunities she receives as a military child, like traveling and meeting new people.
"I like it [the camp] because you get to do new activities every day and be with your friends, and make new friends," she said. "I want to return next year."
Connor Hunter, 10, from Ellicott City, Maryland, whose father is in the Navy, said he enjoyed meeting the Soldiers from APG who work "just across the bay."
"This is a life lesson, teaching me in advance how to deal with the stress of being a military child," he said.
Hunter's mother, Jennifer Hunter, called the camp "awesome," and said her son Colin Hunter, 14, has also attended Operation Purple for several years.
"It is a great camp, and it is amazing, too, because it is free," she said.
APG resident Aimee Percy, a Marine veteran, said she enjoyed seeing her daughter Gwen Percy, 9, learn new activities at the camp.
"Its super fun, it makes me want to stay and play," she said. "It keeps them busy, and active."
North Bay Executive Director Keith Williams said during the week the children experienced "traditional" camp activities like swimming, kayaking and zip lining while socializing with other military children.
"We love hosting this, we love being a part of this," he said. "It is just a small way that we can support military families. These kids are giving just as much as their parents are."