Camp Focuses on Children of Reservists

Kids who have parents in the Reserve or National Guard have an opportunity to go to camp to get a sense of their parents' life in the military. Campers have uniforms, dog tags, a special exercise routine and rations. It's run by the Georgia 4H and is one of 10 of these camps across the country. Mary Kay Mitchell of member station WUGA in Athens, Ga. reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Children of active-duty soldiers are somewhat used to their parents being away on long deployments. Now that a growing number of National Guard and Reserve units are being called up for combat duty, many more children are suddenly thrust into an entirely different lifestyle with little community support. Mary Kay Mitchell of member station WUGA in Athens, Georgia, visited one program designed to help these children.

MARY KAY MITCHELL reporting:

Their dog tags jingling, these energetic teen-agers in red unit start their day much as their parents in the military do with cadence calls and physical training drills.

(Soundbite of drill)

Unidentified Group: (In unison)...(unintelligible)

MITCHELL: However, the setting is much different than the Mideast desert where many of their parents are deployed. Wahsega 4-H camp is nestled in the woods of the north Georgia mountains, surrounded by a picturesque creek with waterfalls. Here 22 campers talk about what it means to have parents on long, dangerous missions.

(Soundbite of camp noise)

MITCHELL: During one session, 12-year-old Megan Canter is choosing purple and green letters to spell her name on a banner. She came to camp for a break.

MEGAN CANTER (12-Year-Old Camper): I just wanted to get away for a little while. And while I'm here, I don't worry as much as I do when I'm at home.

MITCHELL: Megan's father is an Army National Guardsman with the 48th Brigade which has suffered numerous casualties from recent bombings in Iraq. Megan recalls how anxious she was after one incident.

CANTER: It got me scared, but I wasn't as upset as Mommy was. 'Cause after they had it, he didn't call and then I told her just to have faith and she did. Then he finally called.

MITCHELL: Child development specialists with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension created specific exercises for the vulnerable young teens. For example, they're writing a public service announcement to communicate what military kids experience during wartime deployment. Many say that people forget about their sacrifices. Kelin Smith misses throwing a football around with his dad and just having him present in his life.

KELIN SMITH (Camper): When you send my parents you send me--two years without my role model and two years without a male figure in my life. And nothing can replace that.

MITCHELL: Kelin is tall and athletic and, at 13, he's the oldest child in his family, so he has to take on more household responsibilities while his dad is in Iraq.

(Soundbite of camp noise)

SMITH: Oh, cutting grass, taking out the trash which I normally didn't do; like, keep my room clean even more.

MITCHELL: The camp also demonstrates what their parents are going through. So for lunch, purple unit is having meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, as their parents in the field call them. Tyler Heck and Tyler Woolard say the fruit and crackers are OK, but the main dishes, such as chicken, leave a lot to be desired.

TYLER HECK (Camper): It was nasty.

TYLER WOOLARD (Camper): It was nasty.

HECK: It was too dry.

WOOLARD: It was--yeah. It didn't have any really...

HECK: ...water...

WOOLARD: ...taste or spices to it.

Unidentified Woman: ...what happened...

WOOLARD: I feel sorry for my dad having to go over there and eat all this.

HECK: Me, too.

WOOLARD: Instead of eating regular food.

MITCHELL: Sharing these experiences has taught the teens that they don't have to be alone in facing their challenges. Many plan to stay in touch. Chris Pierson believes the best part of the camp is the new friends he's made.

CHRIS PIERSON (Camper): It helps me now that I know that there's other people going through the same thing as me, so now I feel like I have someone else that knows what I'm talking about in summer who can help me get through it and I can help them.

MITCHELL: And yet, there's still plenty of time during the weeklong program for these thoughtful kids to have some fun in typical camp activities. Similar camps for military kids are being offered around the country in states from Texas to Alaska, every week through September 3rd. For NPR News, I'm Mary Kay Mitchell, in Athens, Georgia.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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