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For Wounded Vets' Children, A Special Summer Week

Breelyn Ellis, 9, at home in Wendell, N.C. She attends Camp Corral, which brings together children of wounded or fallen veterans; her father, Chris, sustained a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. Credit: Veasey Conway for The New York Times

Author: David Bornstein

Exerted from The New York Times

For two years, Breelyn Ellis, 9, has attended Camp Weaver, in Greensboro, N.C., for a week each summer. Her favorite activity is the ropes course. Strapped in and safe, she can lose herself in the physical challenge and just have fun.

“I can let go of everything at home,” she said. “It’s just non-stress. I’m not worrying about my dad.”

Breelyn’s father, Chris Ellis, served in the Army in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He left the military in 2005. “I wish I was still in,” he said. “But due to my injuries, I have memory issues, I forget things, like I’ll start cooking and forget what I’m doing. And I have anxiety. So I don’t like to leave the house.”

Breelyn, he added, is “kind of stuck with dealing with the aftereffects of my military service.”

Breelyn was able to attend sleepaway camp thanks to Camp Corral, an organization that arranges and pays for a week at camps around the country for thousands of children of wounded, injured, ill or fallen military veterans.

Kerry Ellis, Breelyn’s mother, works at home taking care of Chris through the Veterans Affairs Caregiver program, as well as doing contract work for another military support organization. Breelyn too assumes considerable responsibility for her father’s well-being. “When I go out with my dad, like to a school meeting,” she said, “I usually bring him to the corner at the back of the room with me and hold his hand.”

“Breelyn has had to grow up faster than other kids,” Kerry said. “She never really throws a hissy fit. She goes to the V.A. with us, plays piano for older veterans, shakes anyone’s hand. It’s hard for her to relate to kids her age. And this sometimes makes school hard. I want non-military kids to know that for kids like Breelyn, it’s harder to be a normal kid and blend in.”

Through Camp Corral, Breelyn has enjoyed meeting other children who understand exactly what she’s been through. “Sometimes they tell me about their parents, and their experiences, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that actually happened to them, too.’ ”

Since 2001, more than 50,000 American service members have been wounded in action, more than 6,500 have died, and up to 400,000 have incurred post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or traumatic brain injuries.

In 2014, there were 1.8 million children in military families. Studies indicate that these children have higher risks than non-military children for a range of behavior and mental health problems. But military children and their families are also notably resilient. Many share a bond with the military community and a strong sense of family purpose and pride. Compared to the general population, military children are twice as likely to live in two-parent families and — at least until their parents leave the service — enjoy superior access to affordable early childhood education and health care.

However, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Affairs Department lack mechanisms to systematically monitor the well-being of military children or explore the kinds of experiences that could help them cope better with the stresses they face, says Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, who directs the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. Organizations like Camp Corral, which is supported by philanthropy, can point the way in identifying the needs of military children and the best practices for assisting them.

More than 17,000 children 8 to 15 years old have attended summer camp through Camp Corral since its founding in 2011. The organization works with 22 camps in 19 states. It carefully vets its partners, focusing on quality, safety and mission, says Leigh Longino, the organization’s chief executive. Each spring, it brings camp directors together for training that focuses on military culture and the distinctive challenges faced by children of military families.

“There are programs for Gold Star children and for children of active-duty military, but not a lot for children of veterans,” Longino said. “And our veterans are young. They’re 27 years old with three children. They’re not your grandparents any more.”

For most of its campers, Camp Corral is the only organization that deliberately brings them together with other military children. It’s a vital need. In a 2015 survey, Camp Corral found that 52 percent of campers felt that those around them didn’t understand what it was like to be a military child and 39 percent said they had a hard time making friends.

By offering the children a week of fun and escape — with activities like swimming, canoeing, arts and crafts and horseback riding — the program seeks to help them build relationships and coping skills that can strengthen their resilience. “Connection is our No. 1 goal,” said Hannah Hutler, director of program management for Camp Corral. “Connections with solid adults outside their parents and with peers who can relate to where they are coming from.”

One longtime partner is Camp Hanes, run by the Y.M.C.A. in King, N.C. Each summer, on a Sunday early in the season, 240 campers from Camp Corral arrive for a week together. “It’s a tough week but it’s the most satisfying thing we do,” says Jen de Ridder, the camp’s senior program director. “All my staff are moved by how much the kids have had to deal with at a young age.”

Camp counselors are prepared to help their charges deal with feelings like particularly strong separation anxiety. Otherwise, it’s a normal week of programming, with a special day in which children are recognized as heroes. Some camps include American Red Cross-led “Reconnection Workshops,” which focus on helping campers build coping and communications skills.

“Military kids interpret that they’re expected to cope and help out in the family and not be kids,” said Melissa Porrey, who oversees resiliency programs for the Red Cross. They often keep their feelings inside so as not to add to their parents’ stress. “Sometimes they don’t have appropriate ways to express themselves, and behaviors come out in other ways, or they close up,” Porrey said.

MacDermid Wadsworth remembers a 9-year-old who decided that it was his job to keep his 12- and 15-year-old sisters from fighting while his father was deployed. “That’s a big thing to take on, and nobody knew he had taken it on,” she said. “It’s very common for parents to say, ‘I had no idea that’s what you thought I meant.’ ”

In the Red Cross workshops, children learn to recognize and express concerns or feelings. It may be practicing saying things like, “I’m having trouble fitting in,” “I don’t understand why we have to move all the time,” “I need a minute to be alone” or “I feel scared because of what I heard in the news.”

“We help them recognize their individual emotional needs, separate from their family or their parents,” Porrey said. “Kids don’t know they need this until they take it, and they start to feel better.”

The end of the camp week tends to be highly emotional. “The kids are more appreciative of this experience than almost any kids I’ve ever worked with,” said de Ridder. “And their relationship forming is on a tighter level than what I see in a regular week of camp. At the Friday night closing banquet, parents and kids come by, saying thank you, thank you, over and over again. There is a lot of crying.”

Camp Corral’s surveys indicate that campers develop supportive relationships, build confidence and improve their ability to handle difficulties. In general, researchers view summer camp as a beneficial experience for most children. However, given the dearth of research on military children, MacDermid Wadsworth would like to see more studies focused on questions such as: Which kinds of experiences are most helpful to these children? For what length of time? When and for whom might day camp be preferable to sleepaway camp? When might a family retreat be more helpful than giving children time away from home?

Last summer, Camp Corral sent nearly 3,700 children to camp, with 3,400 left on its waiting list because of funding constraints. Next summer, the organization’s leaders hope to send 4,000. It costs, on average, $600 to send a child to camp for a week.

“I don’t want to say the week for Breelyn was magical, but it was life-changing,” said Kerry Ellis. “Her confidence level has improved a lot. She knows she can try new things and people will have her back.”

Still, Breelyn finds it hard to leave home. She worries about her father. The first two years, she almost backed out.

“Next year is going to be easier,” she said. “Because it’s the third year.” And she’s really looking forward to seeing her friends again.


​Please note: The information on this website is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider regarding specific medical concerns or treatment.

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