Through a special camp offered by Georgia 4-H, children of soldiers experience what life is like for their parent during active duty.
Operation Military Kids is a week-long camp designed for children whose parents are currently deployed, soon to be deployed or have recently returned from deployment by any service branch or component. It takes place this summer at Georgia 4-H’s Camp Wahsega in Dahlonega.
Free to military families
The camp is free and funded by a grant from the 4-H National Headquarters and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. OMK is a partnership between 4-H and the Department of the Army. More than 150,000 youth participated in national OMK events across the country last year.
In Georgia this summer, campers visited nearby Camp Frank D. Merrill, an Army ranger camp in Dahlonega.
“If you are an Army ranger, Camp Merrill is one of your stops,” said Marcus Eason, the Georgia OMK coordinator. Camp Merrill is the home of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and the mountain phase of the U.S. Army Ranger School. “They’ve been doing mountain training there since the ‘50s, and our campers used the repelling wall there and used the wire bridge to cross the river.”
Making new friends with shared lifestyles
Campers learned skills to help them cope with the stress of their parent’s deployment, Eason said. “And they got to spend time making friends with other military kids who are also missing their mom or dad.”
Thirteen-year-old Katrina Petersen’s father, Staff Sergeant Robert Petersen, has served two tours in Iraq. She has lots of friends at Academy of Richmond County in Augusta, Ga. Thanks to the OMK camp, she now has friends who can relate to her home life.
“(The camp) helped me a lot because I got to meet other military kids,” she said. “They all live about three hours away from me, but we keep in touch by texting each other, and we’ll see each other at camp next summer.”
In the past, Georgia guard and reservists have sacrificed time with their families by spending one weekend a month and one training week each summer away from home, barring any state or national disaster.
A need during current times
"With Operation Enduring Freedom and the Overseas Contingency Operations, our country is relying more and more on guard and reservists,” Eason said. "When a parent leaves for duty, it impacts the entire family. These OMK summer camps are designed to help them cope."
Petersen knows this first hand.
“When you are in the military, you have to make a lot of commitments. You have a lot of responsibilities, and so does your family,” she said. “My dad was away from home for a year and then for 15 months. I’m really glad he’s home safe now.”
Most of the children who attend OMK camp in Georgia have parents stationed at Ft. Benning, Ft. Gordon and the Ft. Stewart area. “But there are also a lot of military in our state that aren’t necessarily assigned to a military installation,” Eason said.
The kids experience military life and gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, he said. But they are still at 4-H camps. Campers swim, make crafts, climb the ropes course, play sports and participate in environmental education classes.
Swimming and having fun, too
"The kids get to do all the things we do in every other 4-H camp across our state," Eason said. “Except, OMK campers made a special trip to raft down the Ocoee River and go spelunking in Tennessee. We want these kids to be able to just get away from home and be kids.”
Each year, more than 700 military families and youths participate in Georgia 4-H camping programs specifically designed for military families, like OMK.
To learn more about Georgia 4-H’s military programs, visit www.georgia4h.org/omk .
By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia
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