Image: campers relax in their cabin
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Campers relax in their cabin at Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Fombell, western Pennsylvania. The camp for military children provides an environment for them to talk about the stress of a parent at war.
updated 8/28/2009 9:48:21 AM ET 2009-08-28T13:48:21

Thirteen-year-old David Rojas didn't tell his mother how terribly he missed her while she was on Navy deployments to the Middle East, because he worried it would upset her.

Knowing her mother is under stress, Shania Jones, 10, does extra chores to help with her younger brother and sister while her dad's away with the West Virginia Army National Guard on his second Iraq deployment.

"Deployment" is a word unfamiliar to many children. For David, Shania and other military kids who stayed recently at Camp Kon-O-Kwee in western Pennsylvania, it's a way of life that's become increasingly hard.

The camp session designed primarily for the children of deployed soldiers was one of 90 organized nationally this summer by the nonprofit National Military Family Association, based in Alexandria, Va. The goal is to have fun, but also to provide a chance for military children to talk with peers who know what they are going through.

Currently, there are about 230,000 American children and teenagers with a mother or father at war. Nearly half of all troops deployed in support of the recent wars are parents — most of whom are on their second or subsequent deployments.

In 2008, military children and teens sought outpatient mental health care 2 million times, which was double the number at the start of the Iraq war, according to an internal Pentagon document obtained by The Associated Press. The document revealed there was also a spike in the number of service members' children hospitalized for mental health reasons.

'Kids Serve Too'
For one week each summer, the children sport T-shirts with "Kids Serve Too" on the back, and are encouraged to escape the stress.

Most of the activities are the traditional ones such as swimming and singing camp songs, but not all: In one exercise, campers make lists of ways their lives are different from the lives of nonmilitary kids.

Kevin Oshnock, 24, a camp counselor from Plum, Pa., said even after a parent comes home, the separation isn't something the kids quickly forget.

"Sometimes they get frustrated like, why isn't my dad not around a lot? Or, why does he have to be gone so long? Even after Iraq, they can still remember that. They think about it," Oshnock said.

Outside the dining hall at the camp, David, the

Image: kids play in swimming pool
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Holly Jupiter, 13, lower left, goes after the ball and Lizzy Schnolis, 12, far right, goes after the ball as they play in the pool at Camp Kon-O-Kwee. At top left is Rachael Pudimat, 12, and at top right is Joale Jupiter, 11.
youngest of six kids in Pittsburgh whose Navy mom has done tours in Kuwait and Bahrain, recalled how each time the phone rang while his mom was deployed, he worried it was someone calling to say she had been killed.

When she did call, he said he wanted to tell her how much he missed her, but he refrained.

"You didn't want to say like, 'Mom, I want you come back now,' even though I really wanted to, because I didn't want her to get more distracted," David said.

Shania, the oldest of three from Clarksburg, W.Va., said before her dad left for his second deployment to Iraq, she promised him she'd help out her mom. She's done extra chores like setting the table and making lunches.

"It's hard for my mom because she's got three kids and she has to take care of them by herself," Shania said. She also worries about her dad.

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"Something bad might happen or something might not, but you never know. That's pretty much what I worry about," she said. "You never know if he's OK."

Long term, war's impact on this generation of military kids is unclear, in part because research on the affects of parents' multiple deployments is limited.

David Riggs, executive director at the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said generally speaking, he suspects most military kids will probably do OK — although kids with problems before a parent was deployed might not do as well.

The more often the deployments come, however, the more difficulty the kids will likely have bouncing back each time, he said.

"What we don't know is when you take families and just over and over again put them through these kinds of intense stressful experiences, how much they'll roll with it, and at what points it will just become too much for them to handle," Riggs said.

Shania's mother, Shelly Jones, said after her husband's first deployment, her second child, Alison, followed her husband around everywhere he went — even sitting outside the bathroom when he was inside — because she was afraid he'd leave again.

Image: campers gather together for a game
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Campers gather together for a game at Camp Kon-O-Kwee in Fombell, western Pennsylvania.
Even though it's difficult, she thinks having their dad away in Iraq helps instill a sense of patriotism and strength in the kids.

"I think everything that happens in a kid's life is going to affect them long term. It's just, do I think it's going to be detrimental for them? No, I don't think that," Jones said. "It'll make them in a way stronger because they know that they can do things if ever their dad isn't around."

Antonio Bermudez, 10, who traveled from Columbia, S.C., to attend the camp and whose dad is in Iraq, said most the time, he feels like a normal kid. But he said the hardest part about having a parent in the military is the uncertainty.

"If you mom or dad's in the military, you don't know when they're going to be sent away or not," Antonio said, matter-of-factly.

His friend, Noah Sussmann, 9, from Coraopolis, agreed.

"That's probably the saddest part about doing everything," Noah said.

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