Sunday, July 08, 2007

In a Corner of the Woods, Teenagers Escape From the Trials of Military Life

At a session for children of service members held at Camp Deer Run
in upstate New York, discussions of stress and fear were balanced
by activities like a ropes challenge course,
intended to build self-esteem and teach teamwork.

Published: July 8, 2007


“I don’t want this to sound rude,” said Alicia Jade Geurin, who is 13. Rude was the last word that came to mind. “But civilian kids just don’t understand. You say your dad’s away, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s O.K.’ They think it’s like being away for a week on a business trip. That’s what’s so cool about this camp. You don’t have to say a word, and everyone still understands how you feel.”

At Camp Deer Run in the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains last week, the 59 teenage campers, all with parents in the military, could take on the Eagle’s Nest ropes challenge course, scale the rock climbing wall, wander down by Plattekill Creek.

They could also listen to a soldier just back from Iraq describe what it was like there and hear his family talk about the impact of the deployment on them. Along with other fare (excellent paella with kosher chicken the other day), they could sample military M.R.E.’s. They could literally share war stories or, their common ground established from the day they arrived, use the time to get away from it all.

The camp sessions, known as Operation Purple, last one or two weeks and are organized by the National Military Family Association. This was one of the camps held at 34 locations in 26 states, serving close to 4,000 children for free across all the military branches. But the really striking number is a different one: 155,000. That’s about how many children have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the association. That’s an awful lot of kids under an awful lot of stress.

“One of the favorite comments I heard was from a 15-year-old boy who said, ‘People don’t realize that we serve too,’ ” said Kuuipo Ordway, a behavioral health care consultant for the camps. Which is not to suggest a cadre of mopey kids pining for distant parents. Instead, a visitor gets two contradictory impressions: how unnaturally mature and self-sufficient some of them are, and how much of a quiet burden others seem to carry.

In the first category, you could put Alicia, who lives at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and whose dad recently returned from a tour with the military police in Afghanistan. With the élan of a gung-ho cadet, she seems on a different planet from many of her pampered peers in the MySpace/iPod/Abercrombie generation.

“Two parents have responsibilities, and if one isn’t there, whatever they can’t do, you have to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “But if you know you don’t have Mommy around to hug every night, or Daddy, you learn to be self-sufficient. I know I can go anywhere, introduce myself, I’m not going to be someone sitting in the corner. I love the military life. I love it.” She wants to be a marine.

But for others the anxiety, even in the green repose of the woods, is almost palpable. You can hear it in the questions they ask of visiting service personnel from Iraq, some sort of playful (How big are the spiders? How often do you get to wash your socks?), some as playful as a hand grenade (Have you ever killed anyone? What is it like when a bomb goes off? Are you really sorry when you miss your son’s soccer game?).

For those with a parent in Iraq, like Elizabeth and James Darney of Virginia and Chris Seger of Kingston, the stress is particularly acute. So ask Elizabeth about a military career, and she says no, thanks. Too hard on the family. Chris has it all figured out: Study accounting at Pace University and open a pizzeria.

A lot of the challenges addressed by Operation Purple seem like the problems of modern life, but amplified: divorces and blended families on top of deployments abroad. But Ms. Ordway, the psychologist, says this moment is particularly tough on military kids. Deployments are longer and less certain, and there is a nonstop din of gruesome war coverage. There are more older soldiers, with older kids at more complicated times in their lives, and many parents are returning with grievous injuries or, increasingly, with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s not likely that a week or two in the woods will solve all that, but if it shows kids there are others in the same boat, if they get to ask questions they can’t ask anyplace else, maybe that’s a start.

Up on the ropes course, snug in a harness, was Samantha Santiago, Alicia’s pal. Over the past two years or so, her grandmother died of cancer, her mother served in Germany for more than a year as a nurse, and her parents divorced after her mother’s return. Samantha, who wants to join the Navy, clambered along ropes ending at a platform 35 feet above the ground. From there, the goal was to end the exercise with “the leap of faith,” jumping from the platform toward a bell hanging from the cable.

With the other kids hollering encouragement from below, she hesitated. Then she jumped, and for a fleeting moment, Samantha Santiago flew.