WASHINGTON -- The second year of "Operation Purple" summer camps had its ceremonial kickoff with a reception at the Russell Senate Office Building here June 22.
Operation Purple focuses on helping military children deal with deployment-related issues, said Candace Wheeler, chief executive officer of the National Military Family Association.
NMFA created and administers the camps. This year's sessions began earlier this month.
"I know very, very well from having talked with so many family members of the men and women who are serving or who have served that when an American in uniform is deployed overseas, really the entire family is serving," New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the reception. "Operation Purple plays such an important role in helping the family members.
"There is no more worthwhile mission than Operation Purple's credo of 'Friends. Fun. Future.' Friends and fun, obviously for all the military families, and a future that really does honor the service," she said.
Clinton and North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sponsored the kickoff reception. Senate business kept Dole from attending the reception as scheduled, but she issued a statement about Operation Purple.
"I am most impressed by the dedication, courage and sacrifice of our military families," Dole said in the statement. "The support they provide to their beloved serviceman or woman is critical, particularly during times of deployment. Operation Purple is a way to show our tremendous gratitude to these families and their children."
This year, more than 2,000 campers will participate at no cost to their families in one of the 22 Operation Purple camps held in the United States and overseas. That is more than double the number of campers and nearly twice the number of camps compared to last year.
During the weeklong sessions, campers ages 8 to 18 can experience educational and challenging activities. The latter is something that the volunteer counselors enjoy seeing the kids overcome.
"It was just great to challenge these kids to challenge themselves and watch how they overcome their fears and climb that pole and make that leap," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Kovach, a Camp Purple counselor. "Afterward they've just got the biggest smiles on their faces, and they're feeling really good about themselves."
The camp is designed to bring children in similar situations together. It gives them the opportunity to share their experiences with a deployed or deploying parent. Though not many actually talk about their feelings on the subject, everybody is ready to listen, Kovach said.
Kovach, who is with the 193rd Special Operations Wing out of Harrisburg, Pa., just completed his second summer as a camp counselor at the Pennsylvania camp. He said the camps' said the goal is for kids to learn and have a great time.
"They're getting an opportunity to forget about the current crisis that we have going on, the war in Iraq and so forth," Kovach said. "It kind of takes their mind off the fact that they may have a parent deployed currently or about to deploy. The week at camp is all about fun."
Kasie Bortz, 12, agrees. She went to camp last year and already finished a one-week camp in Pennsylvania this year. She said she had fun, but also noticed one big difference.
"This summer I wasn't afraid of the bugs, and last summer I was," Kasie said, adding that the camp offered her a lot of opportunities. "It gives you a chance to make friends. It gives you a chance to learn how to do other things, new things that you wouldn't be able to do in a normal neighborhood. It's a lot of fun."
One of Kasie's learning experiences involved a sport called "mountain boarding," a cross between snowboarding and skateboarding. The skateboard rides on wheels made for the rough terrain.
Her dad, Joe Bortz, is a warrant officer with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and also served as a counselor at the Operation Purple camp in Pennsylvania.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. has sponsored Operation Purple from the program's outset. The company has donated nearly $2.5 million to the National Military Family Association in support of the camps. The donations have been made as part of Sears' "American Dreams" campaign, designed to strengthen communities "one home at a time."
"Operation Purple ... is a wonderful opportunity for children of military members to go to a summer camp for almost a week for free and ... meet new friends, children that are just like them that have a parent who is on active military duty and is away from home," said Angela Williams, vice president and deputy general counsel for Sears Holdings Corporation. "What we fail to think about sometimes is the impact that a war or any type of other activity has on children."
Clinton called Sears' support of Operation Purple a model for how the private sector can rally around military families.
Williams can speak from experience on that impact. She is the daughter of a former U.S. Navy chaplain, and she also served in the Air Force. She said she understands the importance of military families and communities.
"So Sears is absolutely thrilled to be a partner with NMFA," Williams said. "We are looking forward to bigger and better things."