By Michelle Butzgy/ParaglideApril 23, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Eighteen Families from Fort Bragg were able to leave their grief, anger and despair behind at Timkin Tunnel and enter into a 'slice of heaven on earth' at Victory Junction Camp in Randleman, N.C. during a weekend of fun April 16 through 18.
The weekend, hosted by Walmart and organized by the Survivor Outreach Services and other Bragg agencies, gave Families of fallen Soldiers the chance to bond and socialize with other survivors through creative games and activities designed to help heal and bring 'new normal' Families together.
The year-round camp was co-founded by Pattie Petty and her husband, NASCAR driver, Kyle, in 2004 after the death of their son, Adam. The camp serves children with chronic medical conditions or serious illnesses with activities and medical facilities and staff that allow them have the same camping experience as children without their physical challenges.
The Pettys offered the camp as a weekend getaway to surviving spouses and their children after approaching Secretary of the Army Pete Geren with the idea in 2008.
"We wanted to reach out to our armed services and make a difference in their lives. We're all just children at heart, no matter what our age, or the trauma situation we have gone through. We all can benefit from some form of healing," said Pattie, who serves as chairman of the camp.
"We felt that Victory Junction had that option (to help a grieving child, parent or Family) step outside the box and put a smile back on their face."
Charlotte Watson, Fort Bragg SOS program manager, saw the transformation first-hand. "It's the first time I've seen them happy as a family. The camp really rejuvenated a lot of Families and you could see the worries lifted off their shoulders," she said.
Counselors kept Families busy with activities ranging from archery and boating to fishing, horseback riding and arts and crafts as well as an "Amazing Race" themed game called Space Mission. In this activity Families went to different areas of the complex and completed fun tasks that also include lessons in communication and teamwork.
After "crew boss," Shelby led blindfolded Katelyn Hellerman, 15, through a maze with only voice commands, Katelyn shared her feelings about how important it was to meet other children like her. She goes to Southview High School in Hope Mills, N.C. where she is the only person her age who has lost a loved one.
"It's what the kids needed ... to be with nobody but kids and to get to know each other in a place where they can all just feel normal and don't have to worry about whether anybody breaks down, somebody getting upset ... it's all normal for what we've gone through," she said.
Katelyn's mother, Michelle, remembers how far support for survivor Families has come after her husband, Staff Sgt. Brian Hellermann, assigned to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, died in August 2003.
"We were kind of the stepping stone to get this started. In '03, '04, we didn't have this, we didn't have the (Survivor Outreach Services). We felt like we didn't have anybody to turn to," said Hellerman.
"It's been a very positive output not only for our Family, but for all of Fort Bragg."
Ellie Bauguess, 7, and her sister, Ryann, tried to feed each other pudding while blindfolded. Soon everyone had a little pudding on them. Both girls said they enjoyed their activities including kissing five fish and hitting the bulls-eye in archery.
"It's the most fun we've had in quite a while. It's a chance for all the kids and the mommies to have a good time and not worry about anything," said Wesley Bauguess, the girls' mother. Her husband, Maj. Larry Bauguess, deployed to Afghanistan with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, was killed in action in Pakistan in 2007.
Vanessa Cole, along with her son, Carson, 10, were able to meet many families like them for the first time. "My husband (Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brent Cole, 1st Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division,) would have been back from Afghanistan this month. It's a nice distraction, getting away from Fayetteville," she said.
Creating campers' experiences like these was Pattie Petty's objective, who said she and all the Victory Junction family, truly appreciate the sacrifices servicemembers have made for the United States. Fort Bragg also appreciates what Victory Junction has done for its Soldiers' families. Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg commanding general, his wife, Melissa, and Command Sgt. Maj. Earl L. Rice, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg command sergeant major, made a surprise visit to the camp Saturday with a special gift for Pattie Petty - the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.
After Helmick draped the medal over Petty's neck, he spoke to the Families in the Silver Theater.
"How wonderful this is what the Pettys are doing for us, the Army team. You all are part of the Army team and don't you forget that. Everybody here has something in common. We've lost somebody that we really love. We can share those experiences. This piece here is where we try to put that on the backburner for just a few minutes as we enjoy all the activities at Victory Junction Camp."
The Families, counselors and volunteers showed Helmick how much they had put away all the stress and sadness by performing the camp cheer "We feel soooooooo good! Uh!"