Washington (Army News Service, Aug. 31, 2007) - "He had to save us. He had to save all of us," said 10-year-old Savana Bucklewn of her father's three-year deployment to Iraq, a deployment so long she didn't recognize him when he did come home.

For Savana and more than 155,000 other military children, the war on terrorism means long, often multiple, absences from dad or mom (or both), fear, loneliness, uncertainty and some very adult responsibilities.

But the National Military Family Association's Operation Purple has given 10,000 of them the opportunity to bond with other military kids at free summer camps where they can be kids again, where they can laugh, play games and learn more about their parents' jobs in the military.

Created in 2004, Operation Purple comprises more than 34 camps in 26 states this year with an additional pilot program for children of wounded servicemembers. This year's final camp ended Aug. 18 in Upper Marlboro, Md.

According to NMFA Spokeswoman Michelle Joyner, camp activities vary by location and age, and can include everything from horseback riding and whitewater rafting to campfires and health classes. Defense Department mental-health counselors are also on hand to provide any professional assistance the children might need.

"It's an absolute need right now," said Laura Carter, Army Reserve child and youth services regional coordinator for Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Colombia, Virginia and West Virginia. "The kids really need that connection - not with the adults who are here or with the counselors necessarily, but with other military kids. It's good for them to have a community that is sensitive to what they're going through."

That interaction is especially crucial for children like Carly and Cydney Rippel, who said their friends and classmates don't understand how it feels to have a parent in harm's way.

"They were like, 'You don't miss your dad at all, you've always seen him.' And I was like, 'Yeah, I really do miss him,'" said Carly, 10.

"We couldn't really relate to them," added Cydney, 12. "But when we come here, we can relate to people who have had the same experiences. It's really important because all the kids here can talk to other people."

They can share how it feels to do extra chores and take care of siblings, celebrate a holiday or a birthday without a parent, or have a precious weekly phone call interrupted by an enemy attack like 10-year-old Ian Bridson.

"We were talking, then I heard a guy in the background saying 'Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!' I could hear the rockets exploding on the ground," he said, adding that he didn't know his father was safe until half an hour later.

Another time, Ian said, when his father was on the top of his Humvee with the machine gun on a convoy mission, a sniper's bullet barely missed his throat.

"There was an angel with him who pushed him over," he said.

Just as hard for Ian and other children to understand is that the parent who returns from war may be different than the parent who left. His father's temper changed, Ian explained, but it was okay because he was getting used to it.

Like Savana, Carly and Cydney, Ian's face lit up when talking about camp. "Now I know that it's not only me who has to go through this. It's lots of other kids, too."

One of the highlights at the Upper Marlboro camp was a Humvee brought by four members of the Army Reserve's 312th Psychological Operations Company, which is preparing to deploy in the next couple months.

"I grew up as an Army brat and they did this stuff whenever my dad was deployed," said Sgt. Sean Eckhart. "Even though they're deployed, it puts you closer to your parents since you're seeing the kind of vehicles and equipment they're using. It just kind of builds morale for the kids."

"I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and leaving her is going to be tough," added Spc. Erik Olson. "Knowing that this is here for our kids is great."

The children squealed and laughed as the Soldiers helped them climb through the Humvee and use the loudspeaker.

"I miss you Daddy!" "Daddy, I love you," called some of the children, hoping the microphone was loud enough to reach Baghdad.