SCOTT SIMON, host:
This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq - seven years of sacrifice for many military families, especially the children of deployed troops. Last weekend, more than 100 teenage girls held a first-of- its-kind conference in California, to share their experiences as the daughters of military men and women.
From member station KQED, Sasha Khokha brings us their stories.
SASHA KHOKHA: Kaylei Deakin and Moranda Hern first met two years ago at a leadership symposium for children of National Guard members. Kaylei had a blue mohawk, while Moranda sported more conservative accessories, like charm bracelets. But, says Moranda, they realized they had a lot in common.
Ms. MORANDA HERN: Being teenage girls, it's a really big transition time anyways. And when a parent is deployed or if you move around a lot, it just intensifies those little self-esteem issues. But at the same time, it's difficult when such a big presence in your household is gone.
KHOKHA: Kaylei told Moranda about fighting with her mom while her dad was away in Afghanistan. When he came home again, Kaylei had to get used to that, too.
Ms. KAYLEI DEAKIN: I really just was crazy. Because he was telling me, no, I couldn't do the stuff that I was doing beforehand. And I was like, really? And he was like, you might be old, but you're not old enough to still do that.
And when - also he came home, I had a boyfriend. He was like, boyfriend's got to go.
KHOKHA: Kaylei and Moranda say their connection made them realize teen girls with family members in the military needed a forum of their own. They created a PowerPoint presentation to convince the California National Guard and corporate sponsors. The high school girls raised $30,000 to bring more than a hundred teens to the conference, all expenses paid.
They call themselves the Sisterhood of the Traveling BDUs, for battle-dress uniforms. They hope to go national next year, but theyve kicked off the effort with this first conference near Fresno, California.
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KHOKHA: The event begins with a masquerade ball and the girls parading down a purple carpet in fancy dresses. Moranda explains.
Ms. HERN: We want the girls walking the purple carpet right now to know that it may be hard, but you're special because your parent is in the military.
KHOKHA: The teens are exhausted after long bus rides from different parts of California and a 5:30 a.m., military-style wake-up call. But they seem to perk up - even stopped texting and giggling - to listen to presentations from an Olympic soccer player and a Hollywood executive. There are also workshops on self-esteem.
Unidentified Woman #1: So what is self-esteem? Anybody, whats self-esteem?
Unidentified Woman #2: It's how you feel about yourself and the way that you carry yourself.
Unidentified Woman #1: I love that, the way you feel about yourself. And do you think self-esteem is something you're kind of born with?
Unidentified Woman #2: No.
Unidentified Woman #3: No.
Unidentified Woman #1: No?
KHOKHA: They also hear from the first African-American woman to head the California National Guard, Brigadier General Mary Kight.
Brigadier General MARY KIGHT (California National Guard): You are worthy of the future. You are worthy of our time. All of you are worthy of this.
KHOKHA: Eighteen-year-old Tiffanie Fisher welcomes that message. Her dad first deployed when she was 13.
Ms. TIFFANIE FISHER: I said I was prepared for it, but the day he left I cried like the whole day. The whole day. He wasn't even gone yet and I was already crying, 'cause I used to be really, really close to him.
KHOKHA: Tiffanie says the most nerve-wracking moments came when her father was serving in Iraq, and the family heard he had been shot.
Ms. FISHER: We didn't know if he got killed. We didn't know like, anything. We just knew he got shot. And so during that three weeks, it was hard. My mom cried every night. We all cried - and I can't see my mom cry, so it made me cry.
KHOKHA: Her father survived and is home, although she says he has a bullet still lodged in his leg.
Lots of girls at the conference share their fears that something could happen to their parents in combat. Sixteen-year-old Alexandria Gonzalez.
Ms. ALEXANDRIA GONZALEZ: For me, cause Im a daddy's girl, so it's like - Im like, super-close to my dad and like, I would never want nothing to happen to him because if he died, I think I would die, too.
KHOKHA: Alexandria says it's comforting to meet other girls in her shoes.
Ms. GONZALEZ: I'm going to have a different state of mind of like, there is other kids out there going through the same thing as me and my brother and sister. Like, I didn't really think there was really anybody else. But there is.
KHOKHA: Alexandria says she plans to join the Army, too, just as her father is retiring.
Ms. GONZALEZ: I know it's going to be hard for him, but he'll get to go through what I went through.
KHOKHA: Many of the girls say they plan to join the military, including the two conference organizers, Kaylei Deakin and Moranda Hern.
For NPR News, Im Sacha Khokha in Fresno.
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