Summer camp helps soldiers' kids adjust

Obstacle course
The National Guard obstacle course is one of the few military specific aspects of the Military Kids Camp.
MPR Photo / Sea Stachura

A summer camp in Hudson, Wis. is helping provide a bit of normalcy for kids whose military parents have been deployed overseas.

Some 15,000 Minnesota children have a parent who has served or is currently serving in a war zone. Military support services say those kids aren't getting the help they need to deal with the reality of their parents' deployment.

One way to end their isolation involves sending them to summer camp with other military kids.

At Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis., Every child has a parent or sibling who is deployed, or has been deployed, with the National Guard or Reserves. There are 2,300 troops currently deployed from Minnesota Guard and Reserve units.

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The children participate in normal camp activities like swimming, horseback riding, and sleeping in cabins. But they get to talk about their situations with those who understand it best.

Sitting at the lunch table one day, Morgan Fleming talked about her father, who's a member of the Minnesota National Guard. Fleming, 12, is from Burnsville. She said her father served in Iraq for 22 months.

"It was kind of abrupt. I didn't really know. The first time my parents brought it up I was kind of surprised," said Fleming. "I didn't know what that was going to be like, because I'd never had him gone that long."

Morgan Fleming
Morgan Fleming of Burnsville says she doesn't talk about deployment or the war at all at camp. Her father was deployed for 22 months to Iraq.
MPR Photo / Sea Stachura

When Fleming's dad left, she was in third grade. When he returned, she was in fifth.

"It was a little hard because I missed my dad. And when he returned it was weird, because I heard two sets of feet when I was in bed," said Fleming.

Gail Mossmon coordinates the Military Kids Camp for the Minnesota National Guard. She says Reserve and National Guard kids don't get the same support available to children living on a military base.

"When a parent, or a brother, or sister is deployed for a year or more at a time to a war zone, it's a frightening thing," said Mossmon. "And when none of your peers understand what you are going through, or your teachers don't understand what you are going through, or your youth pastor, it becomes a very isolating experience."

Mossmon says these kids are regularly forced into talking about the war, the politics of the war, or their family's beliefs.

Military kids camps let them escape that scrutiny and isolation, because they have the military in common.

Gail Mossmon
Gail Mossmon is the youth program coordinator for the Minnesota National Guard. She says the kids of deployed service members need as much support as they can get.
MPR Photo / Sea Stachura

John Gurtin, the residential program director at Camp St. Croix, says hiking and rock climbing help the kids build confidence and resilience.

He says that helps them deal with the new responsibilities that come when a parent leaves for war.

"They are going to have certain responsibilities so that the house is well taken care of, if they have sibling they can care for them, so they can exude some kind of patience and understanding," said Gurtin. "We teach that here. Here's a climbing wall. Climb 35 feet. We'll help you do it. We'll support you all the way. And when you come down you can grab the rope and help your friends in your cabin do the same."

This is the second year that 12-year old Alex Thoms-Warzecha has attended the camp. He loves it.

"There are a lot of fun things. My least favorite is definitely going to bed," said Thoms-Warzecha.

His stepfather just finished a six-month deployment. Thoms-Warzecha says he feels like he fits in at this camp -- partly because the kids know the same military lingo.

"They all understand a lot more than the kids I go to school with, because hardly anyone I know have people who are deployed," he said.

Thoms-Warzecha says his school friends haven't learned some of the things that he's had to learn as the stepson of a reservist.

"I now know a more extreme version of waiting. It really helps me with patience, that is for sure," he said.

There are several organizations that sponsor summer camps for children of service members, including the National Military Family Association and Operation: Military Kids.