Operation Purple Camp: Helping kids cope, laugh, learn while parent deployed

Master Sgt. Dale Gunter, 120th Security Forces Squadron unit training manager, instructs Little Warrior Sarah, 12, on how to properly fire a B.B. gun during Operation Purple Camp. The camp is designed for children with deployed parents to help them learn about and cope with their parent’s deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Dillon White)

Master Sgt. Dale Gunter, 120th Security Forces Squadron unit training manager, instructs Little Warrior Sarah, 12, on how to properly fire a B.B. gun during Operation Purple Camp. The camp is designed for children with deployed parents to help them learn about and cope with their parent’s deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo / Airman 1st Class Dillon White)

Little Warriors compete in a three-legged-race during Operation Purple Camp. The camp was held near Monarch from July 9 to 13 for the children of deployed service members. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Eydie Sakura)

Little Warriors compete in a three-legged-race during Operation Purple Camp. The camp was held near Monarch from July 9 to 13 for the children of deployed service members. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Eydie Sakura)

Senior Airman Adrian Ortiz, 341st Mission Support Squadron MPF employments technician, left, helps Ethan Kapp, 15, son of Air National Guardsman, far right, carry two young campers during a three-legged race at Operation Purple Camp July 11. The week-long camp is a nation-wide project that brings together children whose parents are deployed, and gives them coping skills and emotional support. Airman Ortiz is a second-year camp counselor and volunteer. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Eydie Sakura)

Senior Airman Adrian Ortiz, 341st Mission Support Squadron MPF employments technician, left, helps Ethan Kapp, 15, son of Air National Guardsman, far right, carry two young campers during a three-legged race at Operation Purple Camp July 11. The week-long camp is a nation-wide project that brings together children whose parents are deployed, and gives them coping skills and emotional support. Airman Ortiz is a second-year camp counselor and volunteer. (U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Eydie Sakura)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- Down a dusty mountain road, a 100-year-old mining camp with wooden buildings springs back to life when a group of children arrive to focus their attention on learning and coping with separation from their deployed parents.

Eighty children with ties to the military attended Operation Purple Camp, a week-long event and nation-wide project sponsored by the National Military Family Association. It was held at Montana's Camp Rotary, located near Monarch, Mont., July 9 to 13.

The word "purple" in the camp's name is a term used to describe joint operations between sister services.

Deployments do not only affect a servicemember, but the entire family dynamics as well. The camp's focus is to give that extra attention to the youth who are at home ... wondering how mom and/or dad are doing. Although each child's story is different, their reasons for being at camp are the same.

"My dad got deployed, and [camp] teaches me how to deal with stuff," said Little Warrior Ronald, 11.

Campers came from across Washington, Montana and Arkansas.

The Montana Air National Guard originally started a camp in the late 1980s to build pride in being a military child, and now it is a part of Operation Purple Camp, said Susan Fairhurst, Montana Air National Guard Wing Family Program coordinator. Malmstrom AFB became involved last year, and the camp is now open to active-duty, Guard and Reserve youth from all Department of Defense services.

About 25 volunteers supervised the campers as they made new friends during their stay.

"I love interacting with the kids and telling them what deployments are all about," said Senior Airman Adrian Ortiz, 341st Mission Support Squadron MPF employments technician and second-year camp counselor.

"Along with being a counselor comes mentoring, and it's amazing to see how strong [the children] are and how they deal with their parents being gone," he said. "They're amazing, and are always anxious to talk about what their parents do and tell their story."

The youth slept in cabins and were assigned a cabin parent. Each cabin parent had a junior counselor as an assistant and watched over about eight children.

"It's some of the hardest work you'll ever enjoy," said Master Sgt. Ross Beyl, Montana Air National Guardsmen in vehicle maintenance.

"I'm fortunate to have all three of my kids here; they really like it," the cabin parent said. "When you're here, you become part of a family."

Campers participated in a variety of activities ranging from arts and crafts to physical team-building adventures. This year's camp theme was about the Roman Empire, so they each got the opportunity to make styrofoam shields wrapped in duct tape and tie-dyed togas to wear to a Friday night dance. Campers also competed in frantic three-legged races and smeared one another with foamy lather in chaotic shaving cream fights. Some of the campers made quick use of the cream as a cement to transform their usual hairdos into mohawks.

Romanesque meals, which were rich in grains, were served daily by four members from the ANG's 120th Services Squadron to give the campers a better idea of what life was like during the Roman Empire.

Volunteers supervised a B.B. gun shooting range at the camp, which appeared to be the preferred activity for many of the campers.

"My favorite activity here has been the B.B. gun shooting range. I got 76 out of 100 and made the top six," said Little Warrior Alec, 12.

The B.B. gun activity began with a 30-minute gun safety class followed by five practice rounds at aluminum cans. The campers then got 10 shots at a paper target. The top six shooters faced-off at the end of the day to determine top female and male shooter awards.

During a nature hike, campers learned how to survive being lost in the woods under the tutelage of Tech. Sgt. Bob Osier and Staff Sgt. Reagen Robertson, both continuation trainers in air crew life support with the Montana ANG's 186th Fighter Squadron.

In their official capacity, the sergeants teach survival continuation training to fighter pilots to maintain readiness.

"The kids really like it; this is my third year, and I've seen some repeats," Sergeant Osier said about the campers who attended in previous years.

Sergeant Robertson said that he "enjoys giving kids the knowledge, so if they get lost they have the basic skills to survive."

Miners of days past came to this same camp in search of valuable minerals and wealth. The children who came to Camp Rotary seem to have found something that cannot be collected with a pick and shovel. What once was a place to mine, has become a place to find peace of mind.