Ensign Christian Montgomery’s crisp service whites can’t hide the pale burn scar on his face as he walks the grounds of the Naval Academy.
Compared with the values he’s built his life around — a commitment to his country and the community of young people learning to live with burn scars — the mark a hot iron left on his face at 8 months old is about as relevant as a passing cloud. It’s that confidence in his own appearance that he hopes to impart to others.
“My scar is just something on my skin,” said Montgomery, 23, who graduated last year from the academy. “It’s not any deeper than that.”
The freshly minted ensign flew in from Boston, where he’s a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the behest of the International Association of Fire Fighters Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the labor union that sponsors the International Burn Camp each year.
The camp brings teenagers and volunteers to the Washington region for an all-expenses-paid, packed agenda that includes tours of the Naval Academy, Smithsonian museums and Arlington National Cemetery, but also a heavy dose of fun at barbecues, a carnival and a banquet.
At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Montgomery — who attended burn camps himself as a teen — gamely answered questions about the plebe experience. Yes, it was physically and mentally punishing. Yes, students sometimes wrestled, then went to calculus class.
“If it was easy, you wouldn’t want to do it,” he said.
While no campers appeared ready to enlist during a tour this week, Montgomery’s experience proved that they could. He was there, bearing the same marks they did, to tell them so.
Blakely Lowrance, 15, of Louisiana, seemed unimpressed by references to the Army-Navy football rivalry, but two years after suffering burns in a house fire, she was enjoying the company of other teenagers living through the same experience.
“Everyone has a different story,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Tom Flamm, the union’s burn coordinator who became a firefighter more than 40 years ago, said the camp started in 1999 to address the challenges young burn survivors face.
People stare. Bullies bully. Adolescent vulnerability is amplified by a visible injury. Some attendees had never taken off their hats in public, Flamm said, or removed their shirts to go swimming before arriving in the District — even at local burn camps across the country.
“You may have someone from California meeting someone from Nova Scotia,” he said. “They all go through similar things in their lives because they are burn survivors. … Some of the breakthroughs that happened here are amazing.”
Joshua Gray, 14 of Waldorf, received second- and third-degree burns on his right leg after spilling a pot of boiling tea at age 9. This week’s International Burn Camp was his first after attending other burn camps in recent years.
Joshua called the community “a second family” that helped him return to the outdoors after his injury. Other kids at the camp know what it’s like to go through rehab — to survive a burn, to recover from it, to have people look.
“Burn camp really helped me get into things, do more activities,” he said. “It’s all good times, having fun.”
The campers weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.
“We may get more out of this than the campers,” Flamm said. “We feel we make a difference.”
Kip French, a camp counselor, said he and his wife, a physical therapist, started the Mid-Atlantic Burn Camp 31 years ago after she was inspired by a trip to a Colorado burn camp with kids from a Baltimore burn center. French said he’d seen burned children connect with “a new peer group to help raise them up and get them through tough times.” Burn campers have even gone on to marry other burn campers, he said.
“Just to be able to look in a child’s eye and see the joy they didn’t think was possible … it’s amazing,” he said.
Thomas Hudson, a five-year firefighter from Cherokee County, Ga., has volunteered at the burn camp for two years. Helping attendees at the camp motivates him as a firefighter, he said.
“I didn’t know the impact it would have on my life,” he said. “I didn’t know the impact I could have on kids’ lives.”
Hudson said after responding to a fire scene, he tries to comfort a child in an ambulance who’s just been extricated from a blaze. Spending time with children working to overcome burn injuries helps him connect with those just beginning to cope with them.
“When you’re fighting a fire, you have something to relate that to,” he said. “I can’t give it up. I’ll be here forever.”
After viewing Japanese torpedoes and the final resting place of Revolutionary War naval hero Capt. John Paul Jones, the campers were ready for lunch. Walking the Naval Academy’s tidy brick paths, the group came upon a midshipman with a cast, slowly navigating his way across campus on crutches.
Gray, who speculated he “probably” would join the Navy minutes before, offered the stranger immediate encouragement. Showing empathy to others — and learning to love themselves — is just what burn campers do.
“You got it!” he shouted.