ALEX COHEN, host:
For many of the men and women sent to war, there is a family left behind. Kids often have to deal with the absence of a parent who is deployed again and again. That can put a lot of pressure on a child, which is why the National Military Family Association set up a summer camp called Operation Purple.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein paid a visit.
DAN GORENSTEIN: Fresh from a French toast breakfast, 70 some campers head to the flagpole. Operation Purple Camps recognize these kids are serving their country just like their mothers and fathers do. They do their part by sacrificing their parents.
OPERATION PURPLE CAMPERS: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
GORENSTEIN: It's the last full day of the week-long session here at Camp Marshall in central Massachusetts. Thirteen-year-old Jackie Fondo(ph) says it's been a swift reprieve.
Ms. JACKIE FONDA (Camper): This is like hardcore forget about it. You know, you're on vacation right now. You don't have to think about anything, just swim.
(Soundbite of camp)
GORENSTEIN: Fondo says kayaking, the 40 horses, the archery, the drama clubs and the solidarity have made the escape easy. Thirty-four camps across the country have signed up to host an Operation Purple program like this for a week over the summer. Camp Marshall director Penny Marston says the only thing that makes this week different than the rest of the camping season is the emphasis on military issues.
The kids met with military officials, toured military bases, and once even dined on MREs, meal ready to eat. Despite the difference, Marston says her staff has tried to treat military kids just like any other group of kids.
Ms. PENNY MARSTON (Director, Camp Marshall): We decided early on that this is not a clinical environment and the kids are learning coping skills by taking their canoe out, and it's working.
GORENSTEIN: All week, Marston has tried to balance letting kids just be and providing a place where they can deal with their issues. She has seen that underneath the laughing and the loud singing is some real pain.
Ms. BRIANNA GONZALES(ph) (Camper): You have all these mixed-up emotions; anger, happiness, sadness. You just don't know what to do with your - and like an emotional rollercoaster. It's so many different things.
GORENSTEIN: That's 12-year-old Brianna Gonzales. She's had a hard time since her stepdad left for Afghanistan. One time in class she got upset thinking about her stepfather, and classmates teased her.
Ms. GONZALES: They shouldn't treat me like that because they don't know what I'm going through. So it really gets me mad. It makes me want to like hurt somebody. I always keep my emotions balled up inside until they explode.
GORENSTEIN: What did kids say to you?
Ms. GONZALES: Like suck it up, you'll get over it and stuff.
(Soundbite of crying)
GORENSTEIN: Her counselor and bunkmate wrap their arms around the sobbing 12-year-old. Brianna says Operation Purple is the best thing that's ever happened because she's surrounded by people who understand her. Then there's Ben Hanki(ph). He's 11. His dad left to serve as an intelligence officer in Kosovo right around the time Ben began middle school.
Mr. BEN HANKI (Camper): I've been sort of depressed lately. And so it's kind of a hard to - like you can't really to take us to the movies and stuff. You can't dial like - we can't go to like the beach together or anything. It's just not really as fun.
GORENSTEIN: But when you use the word depressed, I mean that's a pretty - that's a big word. That's an adult word.
Mr. HANKI: Yeah.
GORENSTEIN: What do you mean?
Mr. HANGKI: Well, I've been - I've been like taking medication for it and everything. It's just really tough.
Ms. LAUREL HANGKI(ph) (Ben's Mother): He's in this unique situation. We don't know anybody else who has a parent deployed.
GORENSTEIN: Laurel Hanki is Ben's mother. She says Ben had trouble functioning this year. She had to force him to go to school, even help him get dressed. In particular, Laurel says he struggled to connect with people.
Ms. HANGKI: You know, while lots of people have reached out to him, there just hasn't been anybody to do it from a place that would mean something to Ben.
GORENSTEIN: Laurel Hanki spent seven days wondering if Ben had met a good friend. Then she got a letter. It was the first time her son had written since he came to camp.
Ms. HANGKI: He says, hey mom, things are pretty cool at camp. And now I have a profound love for horseback riding and kayaking. I have a date for tonight's dance and she's really nice. I can't wait for it. I took tons of beautiful pictures in my kayak of water lilies and a few amazing landscapes. I love photography.
GORENSTEIN: The next day his second letter arrived.
Ms. HANGKI: Dear mom and Jack, got back from the dance about half an hour ago. Now I'm sitting on my bunk writing this by the light of my flashlight. In some ways it was really weird and awkward. But in other ways it was a kind of fun I've never experienced.
GORENSTEIN: Ben tells his mom initially he and his date were uncomfortable, but the butterflies eventually settled. He writes what really sticks out in his mind was the end of the night.
Ms. HANGKI: Later, practically everybody got together, arms on the neck and shoulders of the people next to them, forming a circle like at church, swaying and dancing to the great song "American Pie."
GORENSTEIN: Ben's been home for a little less than a week. And Laurel sees a change in her son. In intimate after hour talks and casual chats at lunch many of the campers at Operation Purple came to see how much they share. Laurel shrugs, maybe that and the horseback riding, the photographs and the dance are really enough to touch her son. But she says she's still worried about September, when school starts. Ben's dad doesn't come back until November and she's not sure if the camp memories are enough to carry him.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.
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