April is the Month of the Military Child and as I think about why we set-aside a month for this purpose, I reflect on the phrase “Kids serve, too.” You’ll often hear this phrase used as a short-hand acknowledgement of the fact that children of our military Service members make sacrifices right alongside their parents. The life of a military child includes challenges such as frequent relocations, long separations from a deployed parent (or parents) and the uncertainty that can come from being a part of a military-connected family. Since 2001, over two million children have experienced the military deployment of a parent with many of them experiencing multiple deployments.
My children are two of them.
My husband is in the Navy and since 2001, he has deployed three times and is preparing to leave on his fourth later this year. As we prepare for this next deployment, I have started thinking again about all the resiliency programs, resources and supports that have helped us (and so many other families) during periods of separation. Besides the informal and invaluable support we receive from family, friends, neighbors and our community, we also have benefitted from many formal programs that exist to help military families. From the United through Reading Program which allows parents to record themselves reading a book so it can be watched over and over again by their children while they’re gone, to the Military Kids Connect web site providing deployment-related interactive activities for kids of all ages and the pre-deployment briefs offered to families before a unit deploys. Taking advantage of so many of the programs has really helped our family successfully navigate past deployments.
At our last duty station, my husband was assigned to a ship with a very high operational tempo. It felt like the ship was constantly either deployed or underway preparing to for deployment. As any Navy spouse will tell you, even when ships are home (in port), the Service members still work very long hours. It was not uncommon for my husband to leave in the morning before the children were up and to get home after they went to bed – effectively not seeing them even when they all slept under the same roof. At that point, my children were seasoned military kids and were used to this cycle. However, one thing that was different during this tour was that we lived off-base and they attended a community school with few other military children. Sometimes they described feeling “different” and a bit lonely because so few of their classmates understood this experience.
Once my husband left on deployment, I knew I needed to find additional resources to support my children. At just the right time, someone suggested sending them to an Operation Purple Camp – a camp just for military children. I found one offered in our state and my children were accepted to attend a weeklong camp that summer. None of us were sure what to expect but the moment I drove up to the camp, we all felt very welcomed. There was a giant American flag at the entrance with lots of counselors there to greet us. In addition to being excited that my children would have what I hoped would be a fun experience, I also looked forward to having some time to myself.
Five days later, when I picked my children up, I saw a difference in them right away. They had met friends they were determined to keep in touch with and shared stories about the experiences of children with parents from other military branches (“Did you know some Army deployments last longer than a year?”, “Did you know there are more than 20 military bases in this state and LOTS of military kids?” etc.). One of their favorite activities during the camp was the creation of the “wall of honor” where each child brought a picture of their deployed loved one, told the group about them and put their picture on a wall in a common area. Four years later, they still talk about how much they enjoyed attending the OPC because it reminded them they weren’t alone and that there are many kids who understood their experiences.
In preparation for writing this blog, I wanted to learn more about Operation Purple Camps which are run by the National Military Family Association (NMFA). Recently I had the opportunity to speak with NMFA’s Youth Initiatives Director, Meredith Lozar to find out more about the program. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:
AT: Tell me about how Operation Purple Camps got stared and how the program works.
ML: OPC launched in 2004. It was born out of parents asking for a way to help their children manage the high operational tempo of deployments. More Service members than ever were married with children and families were looking for ways to help children learn the coping skills needed to weather the storms. Camps are 100% funded through the generosity of many donors. Each year the camps are offered at different locations in the US. We strategically pick locations to offer camps where they are most needed. These camps are free to families from all uniformed services (hence the designation of “purple”).
AT: What are the goals of the OPC’s?
ML: We have three main goals for the children at the camp. 1) to increase resiliency 2) to get children connected to the environment so they understand their impact in the world and 3) to celebrate the fact that they serve also.
AT: Has there been any outcome research on the OPC’s?
ML: In 2011, Rand completed a study of our camps. They found that children attending our camps increased their communication skills and 90% made a new friend and felt less isolated. Also some anecdotal things we hear from parents is they say they see a big difference in their children after attending camps in that they are less shy and feel more connected.
AT: Are there any other programs put on by NMFA for military children or families?
ML: In addition to the week-long overnight Operation Purple Camps, we offer family weekend retreats, healing adventures for families of Service members who are wounded, ill or injured as well as shortened Mini-Camps for younger campers (ages 6-8).
AT: Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information!
As my family prepares for yet another deployment, I will encourage my children to keep in mind the lessons they learned from previous deployments and which they were reminded of when they attended their Purple Camp – to remember they are resilient and they are not alone.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she is responsible for the development and delivery of both live and web-based trainings to military and civilian mental health providers on deployment-related topics.
For more information about Operation Purple Camps or any of the programs offered by NMFA, go to their website at http://www.militaryfamily.org/kids-operation-purple/