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Operation Purple Gives Military Kids A Camp Of Their Own

Friday another group of campers is packing up bedrolls and heading home after a week in the Oregon woods. But the kids at Operation Purple’s Oregon camp all have parents in the military. Most have a parent deployed overseas.

The camp aims to help these kids with the challenge of sharing a parent with the U.S. military.

To some extent, Purple Camp looks exactly like any other camp this summer.

Photos by April Baer/OPB News

The grounds near Salem are teeming with eight- to thirteen-year-olds marching through the woods along gravel paths, splashing around at the canoe launch dock and singing camp songs and chants.

But take a closer listen to the chatter.

Ezra: “My dad’s a weatherman, he’s deployed in Iraq. My mom, um, she has a like, top secret sort of job. I don’t even know what it is.”

All the kids at Purple Camp have parents in the Armed Forces, and most are missing parents deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.

Lydia and Kayana - we’re only using their first names - are in Rogue Cabin, a team for 12- and 13-year- old campers. Both their dads are in Afghanistan.

Lydia:  “I’m the only one in my school who has a family member in the military, out of 556 kids. The hardest thing, having a dad overseas, is the news. Cause they’re always talking about people dying.”

Kayana: “The fear, when you see the news you see a truck blew up and you’re just praying it’s not your family member, you’re scared and hoping.”

Ethan Erickson is a former Oregon Guardsman. He started the Tsuga Community Commission to get the camp started. The operation has worked with kids since 2002, amid the state’s largest military deployments since World War Two.

“A lot of these kids have parents who’ve been gone, three, four times already,” Erickson explains.

He says the kids who come to camp really need a break.

“Issues like homesickness out here are different than at a normal summer camp. They have this sense of duty to take care of their family - particularly 13-, 14-, 15-year olds, if they leave, they’re not just leaving their family and their home. They feel like they can’t take a vacation, because they have a job to do.”

While the camp incorporates some aspects of military structure and discipline, Erickson and his staff make sure it’s really a summer camp, not boot camp.

The camp also offers therapeutic time, with professionals like Robert Gitelson, a licensed social worker and counselor from Keizer.

Gitelson’s talking with a small group of kids about the stress of having parents deployed overseas.  He says they process many aspects of childhood a little differently.

“Their friends play the video games, Medal of Honor, whatever. Their parents, going into Iraq or Afghanistan - it’s not a game, and there isn’t a reset button.”

Gitelson says he’s trying to show kids they have tools to help them with challenges. Here, he asks what the kids focus on to get through tough days.

“Devotedness, can you tell me a little more about that?”

Camp Counselors say over the course of the week, they see kids shed the emotional armor they develop to get through their parents war experience.

It’s not always easy, says counselor Colleen Smythe.

“I had a girl in my cabin last year and she lost a tube of disinfectant cream - something that seemed really minor, she was supposed to put it on a rash every night, and she was literally in tears ‘My mom is going to be so mad at me I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know how to handle this.’ To her, it was like the biggest thing in the world.”

Smythe says, that as the oldest kid in her family, the girl was dealing with a lot of responsibility, at age eight. 

Camp counselor Jorge Mendez grew up by the Army base near Tacoma, Washington. He came to Operation Purple as  a teenage camper. He got so much out of it he came back this year as a counselor.

“Having a military parent is definitely a different experience, and I think it’s something that a lot of civilians should keep in mind when they think of the average soldier. It’s not a man in uniform. It’s a man in uniform with the wife and kids behind him - or her.”

The Tsuga Community Commission received close to 350 applications for this summer’s camps in Western and Central Oregon. It had space for about 120 kids. Organizers hope they can raise more money, and make room for more kids next year.