By Elizabeth M. CollinsMarch 30, 2009
Constant moving. Difficulty making and keeping friends. Parents who may leave for months at a moment's notice. Extra responsibilities. Loneliness. Missed birthdays and holidays. Constant fear that this time mom or dad might never come home. These are the hallmarks of life as a military "brat," said Army kids at an Operation Purple summer camp for military children. But with these drawbacks come immense pride, patriotism, maturity and strength, along with a national and often global outlook.
Created in 2004 by the National Military Family Association, Operation Purple's free camps are designed to help military brats relax and have fun, while bonding with other kids who understand the rigors of watching parents march off to war and moving every few years.
"It's really fun and I think it helps a lot of kids whose moms or dads are in the Army," said nine-year-old Abigail Zipperer. "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."
According to organizers, about 10,000 kids attended 62 camps in 37 states and territories last year, up from 4,000 kids and 37 camps in 2007. Campers participated in such activities as trapeze, archery, skateboarding, horseback riding, gymnastics, self-defense, drama, air rifle and chess.
Organizers also planned military-centric activities to help the kids understand what their parents do for a living, said Tim Glass, program director at Camp Sandy Cove in High View, W.Va. Obstacle courses and team-building exercises like guiding a blind-folded friend through a second series of obstacles reflected 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.
"It makes you feel like that's what (our parents) are doing so you can do it too," said Katherine Riley, 12, whose father had recently returned from Iraq.
Army kids also said that no matter what, they know their moms and dads are real-life superheroes.
"My mom's my hero since forever, because even before the war she was always a strong person," said 16-year-old Jeremy Beale. "She graduated when she was about my age. And knowing that this is her third time over, it's just amazing to me that the Army would send her three times and she would just keep going."
Jeremy's mother is currently on her third deployment to Iraq, and his father has also deployed. Jeremy said that his parents worked hard to keep from deploying at the same time, but that he's closer to his mother, so having her gone is particularly hard.
Although she tries to call every day, and both his grandmothers live with the family, he said it isn't the same. No amount of phone calls, emails, letters or packages can make up for a missing parent.
"It was really hard because my dad doesn't really do all of the taking care of and stuff-it was normally my mom," Jacob Gaz, 11, said.
"The hardest part was just not having her there. Like when you accomplished somethingA,AA,A-you just couldn't tell her."
Like Jeremy, Jacob had grandparents who tried to fill the void when his mother was deployed to Kuwait in 2005, although Jacob said he also tried to look out for his little brother.
In fact, when one parent is gone, an older sibling like Jacob or Abigail's older sister Audrey, 13, often has to take up some of the slack.
With her mother often busy as a family readiness group leader, Audrey said she became almost a second parent during her father's two deployments. She sometimes cooked dinner, she cleaned the house with Abigail and she potty-trained her baby brother.
"Being an Army kid is definitely different than being your normal, average kid," she said. "We go through a lot tougher situations that require us to have certain things like courage and the ability to withstand pressure. And you have to be responsible, definitely."
"You have to be prepared for anything, because anything can happen and you have to be prepared for bad things and good things," added Abigail.
Audrey said that she got angry when her father left-angry at him, angry at the situation and angry in general. It just wasn't fair, she said, but her mother would remind her that her father didn't start this war. She should be angry, her mother said, with the people who did.
"We'd cry and get sad, but we knew that we couldn't change it. We couldn't say, 'You can't do this.' It was his job. He had to do it," said Audrey.
Most of the kids had a special, treasured momento to help them stay connected to their absent parent as they counted down the days and cried when they had to add more days as deployments were extended.
Jacob has a bear with his mother's picture that he would look at when he missed her badly. Katherine wore an anklet her grandmother had engraved with "Capt. Gerald B. Riley, be safe, come home soon." The two Zipperer girls received stuffed animals with recordings of their father's voice from Build-a-Bear.
"I'd press the hand and the message came up. It's dead now because I pressed it so much when I was upset and I still sleep with it. It's really special. That helped a lot," said Audrey.
The kids also agreed that the uncertainty and confusion of deployments was exacerbated by frequent moves and starting over in schools that might not have many other military kids. Civilian kids might try to understand what it's like to send a parent to war, but it's impossible, they said.
"Some people think that starting over is pretty much something that they would want to do," said Jeremy. "Starting over's not always the greatest thing. This last move was the hardest because I moved right in the middle of middle school. Going to school off base was a little different because making friends with military kids would be easier because they have something in common. It's a little weird because you don't know what to say to kids or you don't know if they have military parents. You've just got to wing it.
"It's just cool, having friends again who have parents who have been deployed and stuff like that," he said of the camp.
Jeremy's mother actually deployed in order to avoid moving him in the middle of high school.
Like Audrey, he said it's useless to get mad or expect his parents to change who they are. He said that he's grateful to have parents he can be proud of, especially when many kids don't have parents at all.
"Army kids are full of pride," agreed Audrey. "Especially with our parents. I'm very proud of my dad. He looks to me for support and love and comfort. They can't help their job. They can't help what they do. We might not like them going overseas and stuff, but we have to know that that's what they signed up to do. They signed up to help protect our country. We just have to say, 'Okay, I love you so much. I'm so proud of you all the time. "
Families interested in 2009 Operation Purple Camps can visit: www.nmfa.org/site/PageServer'pagename=op default for more information or to apply.