ARLINGTON, Va. — After Brooke Nyren's dad died in Iraq, she sat alone at recess because her classmates didn't know what to say. One of Alexis Wright's fellow kindergarteners questioned if she was telling the truth about her dad's death in the war, while others told her it was too confusing to understand why she didn't have a father.
More than 4,300 children of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are growing up, forging their own paths while keeping the connection to their mom or dad alive in ways ranging from annual backyard barbeques on the anniversary of the parent's death to keeping a music box of his favorite song.
They've endured awkward conversations with people unsure how to respond when they describe how their parent — typically their father — died in the war and unkind remarks from friends at school. Many of them lost not just a parent but their home, too, because they had to move off a military base. As painful as their memories are, those interviewed at a camp for children of the fallen say the experience has made them more compassionate.
The kids interviewed describe the annual "good grief" camp organized by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors every Memorial Day weekend as one outlet that's allowed them to learn to work through their feelings, and many attend every year. The activities range from going to a baseball game and seeing the horses used at Arlington National Cemetery to writing a letter to their deceased parent that's released in a balloon. Each kid has a mentor for the weekend — many of them current members of the military sporting crew cuts. While the kids participate in the camp, hundreds of other adult survivors meet for sessions designed for them.
Danielle Miller, 16, of Flint, Mich., said she's gotten used to people apologizing profusely for asking questions that led to her saying her dad, Capt. Lowell Miller II, died at war. Eleven at the time of her father's death in 2005 from small arms fire in Iraq, she said she's planning to study business and pastry making because her dad was the chef in the house.
"I'm like, thank you for your concern, but it's OK, I've learned to deal with it, I'm OK talking with it. You don't have to be sorry for bringing it up," said Miller, sporting a red T-shirt worn by all the camp kids at a hotel not far from the Pentagon.
Nyren, now 14, has attended for at least six years, and she said she looks for those who are new. She knows what it's like to feel alone.
"When it first happened when I went back to school, no one talked to me because they were afraid that whatever they would say would hurt me, but I think they should understand that we're still the same people that we were before," said Nyren, of Reston, Va., the daughter of Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Nyren, who died in 2005 in Iraq in a Humvee accident.
Even though she doesn't want to join the military, she said like her father, she plans to one day work for the government. She keeps photos of him in her room.
Wright, now 9, of Flint, Mich., said that at school, she doesn't talk about the 2007 death of her dad, Sgt. Thomas Wright, because "no one else understands me." She said one classmate even went up to her mom and asked her if she was lying about his death. Others couldn't comprehend it when she tried to explain. Her dad died of a heart-related condition while deployed.
"They were like, 'How come I still have my dad and you don't. That's just confusing,'" Wright said. In her room, she said she keeps a music box that plays, "What a wonderful World" — her father's favorite song, and she said she looks forward to camp where she can talk openly about her father with others who understand.
The kids who attend aren't just the children of the more than 6,000 troops who have died in the current conflicts, but also children of service members or veterans who died stateside from causes such as suicide or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In sessions, they are encouraged to maintain close ties with the parent who died by talking about them and honoring them in other ways. Research shows that the kids are going to grieve throughout their lifetime, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS.
"What we're trying to give them is the ability basically to grow up and cope as this comes along because it's going to keep coming back. It will come back for a child when they hit major milestones like when they graduate, learn to drive or get married," Neiberger-Miller said. "If we can give them some support, people are going to find that children will do a little better."
Zach Laychak, 19, Manassas, Va., was in elementary school when his father, David W. Laychak, died in the Pentagon on 9/11, and he just completed his freshman year in college. He said he likes to be asked about his father because it keeps his memory alive, and he rarely takes off a bracelet with his father's name engraved on it. For high school sports, he wore the number four, which was the number his father wore when he played college football.
He's attended for several years now, and said he was back this year to be a support to some of the younger participants.
"You just cope with it and you live with it, and you kind of realize it's a part of your life and you just do what you can to keep the memory alive, and you just be there for other people and you just hope this isn't something everyone has to deal with," Laychak said.
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