CHESTERTOWN, Maryland (Reuters) - Wide-eyed and interrupting occasionally with comments like “My dad’s a Marine,” a dozen or so boys listened avidly as Sgt. Roy Meredith described being injured by shrapnel in Iraq.
A former U.S. Marine now in the National Guard, Meredith returned from Iraq in March and was taking a day out of his regular duties to talk to children of military personnel at an “Operation Purple” summer camp in Maryland this month.
The free camps offer a week of outdoor activities and the chance to bond with other military children, giving parents a break while spouses are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I didn’t realize I was wounded for about a minute or so, then after we got done, I patched my own self up,” Meredith said, showing the kids a medical bag with neck braces, bandages, IV packs and tourniquets.
“The gear we have now is the safest we’ve ever had,” he said, adding that a vehicle beside him was an old Humvee and those used in Iraq now are “up-armored” for better protection.
“They’ll stop machine gun rounds from coming and hurting anybody. Your parents are a lot safer than what I was before.”
Next it was time for a relay race wearing the flak jackets, helmets and backpacks their military parents carry.
The pack was just a third the normal size, but it was still bigger than 6-year-old Drake Stokes.
Still, he was determined to finish the race, and with the help of a camp counselor who ran behind holding the pack up, he did it, helmet falling over his face.
“That hat was too big for me,” he said, laughing, before getting his face painted with camouflage cream.
Operation Purple began in 2004 with 12 camps for nearly 1,000 children. This year 10,000 attended camps around the United States in a $6 million program whose sponsors include the Sierra Club and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
“One of the main messages we try to get out at camp is that kids serve too,” said Michelle Joyner, spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association, which runs the camps and estimates around 155,000 American children are experiencing the absence of a parent due to deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“We want them to understand that we recognize they’re making sacrifices,” she said.
Most of the week is much like any other summer camp — swimming, kayaking, a high-rope course, and pillow fights. One day is devoted to military-related activities.
At the Maryland camp, two remote-controlled robots used to defuse bombs were a big hit.
A helicopter made a surprise visit, and Joyner said one camp had had parachute troops land in their midst.
The kids do service projects, such as making posters for injured veterans, and are given the chance to talk about their experiences, for example by creating a “top 10 list” of differences between military children and civilian children.
“Military kids have so much more stress than regular kids, worrying about their parents, having to take care of the parent that’s at home, more responsibility,” said Joshua Clark, 14, whose father is in the navy and about to leave on deployment.
Sierra Miller, 10, whose father returned from Iraq in May, says when he’s away, she misses him, along with an uncle who is also serving: “Him and my uncle give the greatest hugs.”
Savanah Reinink, 9, whose father is a Marine infantry officer, said it was good to be with others who know how she feels. “It’s very sad when he goes away because you don’t really know when they’ll come back. Sometimes they’ll come back in six months but sometimes it ends up being a year.”
The kids are proud of their serving parents and not shy about showing it. “My dad’s in the Army,” “My dad makes these,” (pointing to a Humvee) or “My dad’s been to Iraq three times,” are typical comments.
Clark Rhiel, 12, says he can name all the places his father, a Marine for 20 years, has served. He rattles off a long list of countries around the globe.
After hot dogs and burgers served at picnic tables, army nurse Jay Rippel, whose two daughters were at the camp, addressed the kids.
“The military is getting better at taking care of the families, but you guys just don’t know what we’re going into, and I know there’s got to be a lot of fear and uncertainty.”
He told them that although he was lonely and missed his family while deployed on a remote base in Afghanistan, he managed to have fun too, setting up a bowling lane with a soccer ball and water bottles and decorating a Christmas tree.
When it was time for questions, one child asked: “What was your biggest fear?”
“My biggest fear was I wasn’t going to be able to get home to see my kids and my wife, because there is a war going on,” Rippel said. “Every once in a while things happen that cause you great concern that you might not get home.”
Editing by Eric Walsh