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Summer camps aid children of troops

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LARKSPUR, Colo. (AP) | At a dining hall filled with the chatter of summer campers eating lunch, the photos on one wall bear witness that this is no ordinary camp.

Pictures of mothers and fathers in uniform are adorned with notes in the bubbly penmanship of youngsters whose parents have or will serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"My dad," reads a note taped to the photo of a man in an Air Force uniform. Another, written in thick, red marker: "So me and my brother all have to be strong and make sacrifices for my dad because we all want him to come back."

About 100 youths are attending this free, weeklong camp in the tiny Rocky Mountain town of Larkspur organized by the National Military Family Association. The association is hosting 10,000 campers in 37 states this summer - up from 1,000 youths at 12 camps when the program began in 2004.

The camps help veterans and their children deal with the stresses of deployment, said association spokeswoman Michelle Joyner.

Nationwide, there are more than 155,000 American children with a parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the Alexandria-based NMFA. And while their parents may face danger, the children at home bear a burden, too.

Their days can be weighted with loneliness, and they deal with anxiety over their parents in combat. With the number of troops with post-traumatic stress disorder rising, many children say they see their parents return changed by war.

As he nears his 13th birthday, Elijah Anding said he is preparing for his father's yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, set to start in October. For Elijah, a week spent at Operation Purple Summer Camp is showing him how others his age react to having a parent serving in the wars.

Most of his friends back home in Colorado Springs aren't from military families, he said, so he usually has few peers to talk to about what he faces.

"Some kids will say they understand, and I don't know what's going on in their brain or anything," he said. "But I think they might not really understand what I'm going through."

Elijah's situation is common at Operation Purple. Few speak of classmates or neighborhood friends who share their situation. And few fully express their fears or feelings at home, said Patty Barron of NMFA's Youth Initiatives department.

"We hear they don't really want to rock the boat at home," she said. "Kids are serving also."

With their service often comes tears. At the Larkspur camp, several older girls decided they wouldn't write about their parents for the Wall of Honor at the dining hall. They tried, but started crying. They put their markers away.

"They're not going to get to it until they feel like that they can, and they might not ever get to it," Miss Barron said.

Those are the times when Heather Graff, a soft-spoken 12-year-old, and other campers step in and offer comfort by speaking from experience.

"Maybe it is true," Heather said about the notion that children also serve when their parents are at war, "because we can also help other kids."

Four summer camps are being held this year in Colorado, where more than 40,000 active duty and reserve soldiers are stationed, Miss Joyner said.

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