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Summer Camp Helps Children of Deployed Parents

July 18, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Every summer at Operation Purple Camp in Colorado, more than half of the campers are children whose parents are deployed in military service. Spencer Michels visits the nurturing site for youth with special needs.

MAN: You guys ready to sound off?



SPENCER MICHELS: This military mission has been dubbed Operation Purple. The deployed? Children age 10 to 17.

MAN: What kind of summer camp?

CHILDREN: What kind of summer camp?

MAN: Operation Purple camp.

CHILDREN: Operation Purple camp.

SPENCER MICHELS: Operation Purple is a free weeklong summer camp for children whose military parents have been deployed. And as the number of deployments has escalated, so, too, has the number of campers and camp sites.

WOMAN: That’s it. Perfect. Perfect.

SPENCER MICHELS: This camp in the woods 40 miles south of Denver, Colorado, is one of 62 sites in 37 states that will host 10,000 campers this summer.

PATTY BARRON, National Military Families Association: This is the first time in our nation’s history where we have these multiple and extended deployments where the same families are being sent back over and over again.

SPENCER MICHELS: Patty Barron, who oversees Operation Purple for the National Military Families Association, says the camp’s popularity is driven by an immediate need.

PATTY BARRON: It’s not unusual for a child to have been 4 years old when the war first started. Now we’re five years into it. That’s an 8-year-old child that for five years has had a parent gone for 33 months. That’s a long time in a child’s life.

WOMAN: Fiona, you ready?

Worrying about that phone call

SPENCER MICHELS: And there is the added stress of worrying about a parent's safety.

PATTY BARRON: They're always worried that that phone is going to ring and is going to bring them some very, very bad news.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ten-year-old Fiona Edwards' father, U.S. Army Sergeant Frederick Edwards, is currently in Iraq. It is his fourth deployment.

FIONA EDWARDS, Daughter of U.S. Soldier: I feel like worried and stressed that my dad is in a very dangerous place. And I'm just scared.

SPENCER MICHELS: The camp's administrator, Mary Marcantonio, says the goal of Operation Purple is to help kids like Fiona develop ways to overcome their fears.

MARY MARCANTONIO, Operation Purple: We bring kids out into the natural outdoors. We work on team-building. We work on self-esteem. We do activities like challenge course, rock climbing, because we want to teach kids coping skills and really look at different ways to manage the stress that they are under.

WOMAN: Now, Fiona, how are you feeling?

FIONA EDWARDS: It's really hard and exhausting.

MARY MARCANTONIO: This is a really scary time for them, and the resiliency piece is super important in terms of being able to express that it is hard, but to be able to go on and have confidence and faith that things are going to be OK.

WOMAN: What was that like?

FIONA EDWARDS: It was really scary, because...

WOMAN: It was scary.

FIONA EDWARDS: ... it hurt.

WOMAN: There's probably some other challenging things that happen in your life. Now you have got some experience pushing through those challenges, right? So, you can think back, like when something is tough or hard, or whatnot, and you go, oh, when I was on that rock wall, I was really tired. My hands hurt. It was challenging. But I kept going. And you figured out some way to do that. Good job. All right.

WOMAN: One, two, three.

Learning to cope with difficulty

SPENCER MICHELS: Twelve-year-old Ascheleigh Downum's father, Senior Master Sergeant Shane Downum (ph), is also on his fourth deployment with the U.S. Air Force.

ASCHELEIGH DOWNUM, daughter of U.S. soldier: I'm worried my dad will not come home, or I'm worried that he will be in a roadside bomb and he won't recover soon. One time, he came home and he's like, I almost didn't make it out.

WOMAN: Good job, Ascheleigh. You're just going to keep -- you're going to take one more big step up.

ASCHELEIGH DOWNUM: What do I grab onto?

SPENCER MICHELS: The children's worries go beyond their parent who is in harm's way.

PATTY BARRON: As much as they're concerned about the service member, them getting hurt or killed, they're also concerned about whether or not mom's going to be able to get through this deployment. They don't want to rock the boat, because they don't want to do anything to add to her stress.

GIRL: I help her out a lot, because she's taking over, like, the command of the house. And it's hard when me and my brother misbehave.

SPENCER MICHELS: Counselors warn that not rocking the boat could lead to emotional problems down the road.

PATTY BARRON: We teach children how to communicate with their peers, how to communicate with adults, and how to find adults that they can talk to if they don't feel they can talk to the mom.

SPENCER MICHELS: Trey Malmay and his daughter Brittany came to the camp together. He is a counselor. She is a camper. Trey has been deployed 26 times for the U.S. Air Force.

BRITTANY MALMAY, daughter of U.S. soldier: It's been hard. You just miss him a lot. You miss him talking.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, at camp, Brittany has thrived on the shared experience of her fellow campers.

BRITTANY MALMAY: At home, I don't really have a lot of military friends. I make friends out here that actually know what I'm going through.

SPENCER MICHELS: A lot of camp time is spent just having fun.

BRITTANY MALMAY: It's actually been a blast.

Anxious about uncertain futures

SPENCER MICHELS: But to ease the campers' concerns about their parents' safety, the camps provide a chance for the kids to see military equipment up close.

MAN: It's the same vests that they have overseas.

PATTY BARRON: For them to be able to put on a bulletproof vest helps to reduce the anxiety level, because they do truly feel like, oh, they are safe. This is really heavy. It can stop a bullet.

MAN: Load up the ammo through here. Pull it through here.

SPENCER MICHELS: The mother and stepfather of 16-year-old Todd Barnes were both deployed to Iraq last year at the same time. During the 18 months they were there, Todd and his sister were sent to live with their grandparents. Now Todd worries about when his folks' next deployment might come.

TODD BARNES, Son of U.S. Soldiers: I'm scared. I don't want them to go again. Neither does my sister, or any of the family, for that matter.

SPENCER MICHELS: Todd's mother, Patricia Coldfelder, a staff sergeant for the Colorado Army National Guard, says much of Todd's anxiety comes from not knowing what the future may bring.

SERGEANT PATRICIA COLDFELDER, Colorado Army National Guard: I don't think he will ever get over us going again, or wondering, when are they going to go again? Am I going to have to change schools? Am I going to have to -- where am I going to live next time? Do I got to move my whole room again?

SPENCER MICHELS: Operation Purple's main sponsor is the Sierra Club, which got involved because of the camp's mission to promote healing through nature.

PATTY BARRON: For some children that are really struggling with depression, that are really struggling with anxiety, there's something about being outside that just kind of tones that down a little bit for them. But, for many, it's a building of resiliency and really another tool that they can use that helps them to feel better.

SPENCER MICHELS: And, for most kids here, the whole experience is a leap away from the worries of war.

MAN: Good job.