It smells like sunscreen and bug spray and swimming pool chlorine in the lush, wooded mountains of Front Royal, Va., the telltale scents of summer camp. For a week, the children at Camp Corral share bunks, rock climb, pretend to be spies and make the noises of kids being kids.
But when it comes time to retire the American flag at week’s end, silence replaces the laughter and squeals. For the sons and daughters of active, wounded and fallen military men and women, the ceremony carries special emotional weight.
Dominic Gierber recalled that moment in his first summer as a camp counselor two years ago. He was sitting next to an 8-year-old camper who had shared his cabin all week. During the ceremony, camp staff explained that the flag had served the country and it was now time to honor it and let it go.
The boy started to cry.
“I could see it tore at him personally,” recalled Gierber, 19. “He said, ‘I don’t get it, it’s still a flag. It’s still our friend. Why are they doing this?’ ”
Gierber could relate to the campers’ habitual sirs and ma’ams, but his dad was never injured in war. Between campfires he found himself trying to comfort children less than half his age who were not as lucky.
To cheer him up, Gierber — whose camp name is “Zeus” because of his tall build — gave the boy a piggyback ride back to the dorm.
Camp Corral at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center off Shenandoah National Park is among dozens of camps that have sprung up across the country since Sept. 11, 2001, to bring military children together for a summer respite of adventure, new friends and simple fun, said Terry Buchanan, youth initiatives director of the National Military Family Association. The group created camps called Operation Purple, which serve around 1,200 children across the United States each summer.
About 1.1 million of the 2.5 million service members deployed since 9/11 are parents, according to NMFA estimates.
“All their stories are unique, but they have the commonality of going through what they’re going through,” Buchanan said. “Mental health support is interwoven into the experience.”
That support may come in the form of trained counselors, who can listen to a child’s concerns, or exploring nature with new friends. The children of these families face challenges beyond those typical to growing up, often having to relocate and deal with injury or loss of a parent abroad. Physical injuries are obvious to the children, but sometimes the mental trauma that comes with serving in a war zone is tough for children to grapple with, said Betsey Fortlouis, executive director of Camp Corral, which holds 22 camp sessions in 16 states, partnering with various accredited camps, such as those hosted by the YMCA and 4-H. Starting with one camp in 2011 and since expanding, the camps are funded by the national restaurant chain Golden Corral, allowing military children to attend for free.
“When you’re a member of a military family, it’s a demanding lifestyle. You have to understand service to your country is first and so your family sometimes has to be second, which can be hard to understand,” Fortlouis said. “The children get to be a kid for a week.”
Terrin Carpenter, 12, picked up a daddy longlegs spider on the walk to the pool while chattering about her multi-talented pet cat and her goldfish that she swore knew how to swim backward. Over her braided pigtails, she wore a camouflage-patterned cap like the one her Gulf War veteran dad always had on his head. By Tuesday, the nature-loving vegetarian said she had already made 10 new friends. Her father, a retired army medic who was awarded two Purple Heart medals, sometimes lost his vision and at times used a wheelchair to move around because of symptoms acquired in combat.
“I’m more comfortable here. Everyone has an injury or a loss,” she said, gingerly setting the spider off the road so it would not be crushed. “It makes me feel a lot better because I’m not alone. But we don’t talk about it too much. It’s more about fun.”
She was very proud of her dad, she said. His eyes couldn’t always see her, but as long as she could see him, it didn’t matter — she was happy.
At Front Royal, 192 campers ages 8 through 15 tried activities such as air riflery, ziplining, crafts, and learning to build a fire with flint and steel. One camper made a functional pinball machine out of cardboard and duct tape.
Cathy Valenza, 37, of Chantilly, Va., served in the Air Force for 14 years before leaving the military in 2011 so her children could grow up in one place. She also wanted to tend to her health after a battle with thryoid cancer. Valenza’s two oldest children, Caitlyn, 15, and Tristan, 13, attended Camp Corral for the third summer this year. The entire family learns the campfire songs and ends up singing them all year, she said.
“They get very close, very quickly, and that’s very similar to the military when you’re in boot camp and you learn to depend on those around and you have to trust each other quickly and keep these bonds,” Valenza said.
Valenza said she knew it was sometimes difficult for her kids when she picked them up from school in uniform and classmates stared. At times she couldn’t tell her kids what she was doing or where she went when she left for trips, she said. They made light of it by telling friends that their mom served the country and “flew a desk.”
Gierber said one of his favorite parts of camp was seeing the older kids loosen up. “They hesitate at first, but I like to see them open up and just have fun,” he said.
This year, Caitlyn made sure to pack crazy-patterned socks for the camp’s theme days because last year she had regretted dressing too timidly.
“I can act really silly. I don’t have to act mature, and I can have as much fun as I want,” she said. “It’s not a military camp. At home we’re military brats, but here we’re all the same so it doesn’t have to be our identity. We are proud of our parents, but that doesn’t define us here.”