A common bond

It’s a summertime ritual.

Kids arrive at summer camp, bursting with anticipation of the fun that awaits them.

Most never notice the wistful glances from parents as they drive off, wondering how their babies could have grown up so quickly.

But the first day at Camp Courage feels different.

At Black Lake Bible Camp near Tumwater, Camp Courage kids don’t seem to mind when parents linger for a long farewell or come back for a repeat hug.

These campers – the sons and daughters of members of the military – have a firm grasp on the art of goodbye. They’ve practiced repeatedly, as their parents have deployed to the far corners of the world.

And on this rainy Sunday, they seem willing to let the separation seep in gradually.

For four years, 13-year-old Daisha Murray of Spanaway has been watching her dad Jason come and go from Iraq. The Army staff sergeant has completed two tours of duty there.

“It’s been hard on the kids,” Jason acknowledges.

Daisha, who lived in Florida and Texas before moving to Washington with her dad’s military career, has never been camping before. She says roughing it isn’t her dad’s idea of fun.

“He said he’s done too much of that in the military,” Daisha explains. So she’s excited, anticipating a week of new friends and new experiences, such as riding horses.

Her dad hopes Camp Courage will give his daughter “something to talk about when she goes back to school.”

Charlene Sursely brought her daughter, 12-year-old Amanda, to the camp from Moses Lake. Both Charlene and her husband, Jeff, are members of the Air Force Reserves. Jeff is on his third tour of duty in Iraq, where he was wounded. After recovering from a knee injury, he returned to Iraq.

“When he was getting ready to go back, there was a lot of anxiety,” Charlene said.

Because they don’t live close to a major military base, Amanda doesn’t meet a lot of other military kids.

“There are not a lot of kids (in Moses Lake) with similar experiences,” she said. “Not everybody loves the military or what they do.”

Her hope is that Camp Courage will help Amanda find a common bond with other kids whose parents are away at war.

This is the first year of operation for Camp Courage, a cooperative venture involving the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, Operation: Military Kids and other agencies.

Campers were able to attend for free, thanks to a grant from Operation: Military Kids – a partnership between Army Child and Youth Services, 4-H and Washington State University.

Darleen Munson of Operation: Military Kids says camp is about connecting with others and learning teamwork. When campers are boating, she says, everyone has to paddle. When they’re riding, they need to stay in tune with both their horse and other riders.

The idea, she says, is to impart life skills in a fun way.

There’s also a serious side to Camp Courage, represented by psychologists Larry Knauss from Madigan Army Medical Center and Diana Frey, who is working with the state Department of Veterans Affairs on a curriculum to reach out to military kids. They planned to brainstorm with campers to learn what their concerns are.

When a parent is deployed, says Frey, the parent at home can feel overwhelmed and kids pick up on that.

“Kids might need help with something that is normal for them developmentally,” she said. “But they try to figure it out on their own. The last thing they want to do is to overburden their (at-home) parent.”

Armando Mejia, military outreach director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, says the various groups involved started planning for Camp Courage about eight months ago. “We put our ideas together,” he said. “Everybody brings different experiences.”

Mejia’s own experience includes the multiple physical injuries he suffered in Iraq after a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee. He underwent more than 20 surgeries, and also sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

He planned to share his story with campers, including the joy he has found through working with military kids.

Originally conceived as an experience for the children of wounded warriors, Camp Courage also included other military kids and a few of their nonmilitary friends.

“A lot of nonmilitary kids don’t know what military kids go through,” Mejia said.

“It’s hard,” said 12-year-old camper Michaela Siebert of Kingston, whose Navy dad is currently out to sea. “You never know how long he will be gone. You never know if something could happen.”

One goal of Camp Courage is to encourage kids – military and nonmilitary – to talk.

“They can learn to support each other,” Mejia said.

James Rasmussen, 15, who will be in 10th grade at Clover Park High School in Lakewood this fall, came to camp with two friends, neither of whom have parents in the military. James’ dad is now deployed as an Army gunner.

He says his dad was injured during one mission, and suffered painful headaches. James has grown closer to his dad every time he’s come home from war.

“He was home recently,” James said. “When he comes home, he tells us a lot.”

James doesn’t talk a lot with his friends about the things his father tells him.

“I don’t really bring it up,” he said. But he says his two buddies, Lee Carter and Eldon Delossantos, understand him.

“They’re cool,” James said. “They’re there for me.”

At age 16, Kelsey Yoshizawa of Lake Stevens is a junior counselor at Camp Courage. She is a veteran of other camps for military kids, including one sponsored by Washington Air/Army National Guard Youth. She’s seen kids come to camp who are so wrapped up in what’s going on at home, they have problems letting go and having fun.

“Military kids have more responsibility,” Kelsey said. Her dad is in the Air National Guard, said.

At camp, kids can get a chance to relax, she says. And they can also talk freely with other military kids who share some of the same stresses.

“It helps a lot with kids not to keep it bottled up,” Kelsey said.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635