Kevin, a 6-year-old with a buzz cut and long eyelashes, says he wants to lose an eye ... to be like his dad.
His father, 1st Sgt. Kevin Walker, survived a bomb blast in Iraq four years ago. Now, he's brought his son to the Army base's middle school here for a day of fun, therapeutic activities designed to help children cope with the feelings stirred by such injuries.
In the past three years, the program has helped more than 1,000 children and teens in locations ranging from Texas to Florida. It is one of several nonprofit efforts that have cropped up to aid families of wounded veterans.
"Kids are experiencing these grown-up problems and they don't have the ability to understand it or process it," says Sarah Balint Bravo, a play therapist who cofounded Camp COPE. The acronym stands for courage, optimism, patience, and encouragement – the qualities that the program aims to foster with its unique curriculum for the children of injured or deployed service members.
The small nonprofit in Dallas is a labor of love that Ms. Bravo and cofounder Elizabeth Reep pursue outside their regular jobs. The idea came to Ms. Reep, a clinical social worker, after she saw the toll her husband's war injuries took on her two young stepsons. "I realized there weren't enough services for kids," she says, "and thought that would be one thing I could do to give back as I got through the struggle myself."
Hundreds of thousands of children have waved goodbye to a parent headed off to Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11. It's estimated that tens of thousands have seen that parent return with injuries or changed behavior attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder. With military and civilian healthcare systems stretched thin, Camp COPE and other nonprofit efforts have been created to fill the gap. In the summers, for instance, overnight camps are organized by the National Military Family Association in Arlington, Va.
"A whole cascade of events develops after an injury ... [and that] needs to be negotiated by the family," says Stephen Cozza, an associate director at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, based at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. While many interventions focus on the injured person, he says, there's more recognition now "that these events have powerful impacts on the family."
At 8 a.m. on a Saturday, clouds dull the brown Fort Riley landscape in the Flint Hills of Kansas, where about 15,000 soldiers and their families are based. Inside the school, it's a lively contrast as a big red Elmo greets the stream of 170 children brought here by their parents.
Adrienne Snow says her third-grade daughter, Jasmyne, has been more emotional since her dad came back a year ago with hearing loss and a brain injury. "I'm hoping she gets to know other children and that she's not the only one going through it.... I think this program is ... over-needed here."
Wiggling in their places on a classroom floor, the 5- to 7-year-olds who have a wounded parent are excited about a bag of colored rubber bracelets. Jennifer Cowen, one of the program's licensed counselors, takes out a blue one that says "COURAGE." "Every one of you shows courage every day," she says. "Even when things are hard, you just keep trying."
"My dad got really hurt," Kevin says. "After the tank blew up, he was about to die ... but he didn't." As he mimics an explosion with flailing arms and sound effects, Ms. Cowen asks, "Do you think your dad was scared?" Without missing a beat, he says, "No, 'cause he's Army strong." She pauses before probing: "But do you think it's OK to be scared?" He nods. "Your dad showed a lot of courage," she says.
The people we love are still the same after an injury, Cowen assures her little troops. "It's not his legs that made your dad, right?" she asks Ethan, whose stepfather lost both legs in Iraq and spends most of his time in physical therapy.
He nods and smiles: "My dad has prosthetics ... and he has hot-pink knees!"
Across the hall, the 8- to 11-year-olds with counselor Amy Tindell use sunglasses as a reminder for "optimism." "I don't like the military because many people got injured," 9-year-old Maria says. "But on the bright side," she slides the glasses from the top of her head onto her nose, "we're safe here." (For more on Camp COPE, see CSMonitor.com.)
For "patience," they practice letting out their feelings through popping balloons and talking to "worry dolls." "Encouragement" takes the form of letters to other military children. Tanner, Ethan's 10-year-old brother, writes in yellow and red marker: "Don't panic. Everything is good. You are not alone."
In a dramatic move near the end of the day, each counselor takes a hammer to a terra cotta flower pot. The children draw or write something to show the way their families were before the war (on the inside of a piece of the pot) and the way they are now (on the outside). Like their family, "the flower pot's never going to be like it was, but you can still put a plant in there and it can still thrive," Reep says.
"This was the coolest day of my life!" Jasmyne exclaims as her mother arrives to pick her up at 3:30.
A few days later, Ms. Snow says Jasmyne has already begun using coping skills such as punching a pillow and writing in a journal, and "she doesn't get upset as easily anymore."
The expertise the Camp COPE counselors have brought to Fort Riley is "incredible," says Denise Ott, director of the Military Affairs Council of Junction City/Geary County, a local coordinating agency. "Our military kids go through a lot that typical children don't have to worry about. There are 6-year-olds that can tell you intimately about an IED [improvised explosive device].... But as much as it is hard and sad to see some of these kids, you also have to look around and see moments of brilliance. Look at what they go through and how well they do."
•For more information, visit websites www.campcope.org and www.nmfa.org.