Operation Military Kids camp in full swing

Betty Gottler, who works with Alabama 4-H, watched as about 100 youth, who could barely contain their enthusiasm, struggled to walk — not run — to the Iroquois helicopter that just minutes before had touched down in a field at the Alabama 4-H Center.

It took several minutes for military personnel to ready the impressive vehicle for the children to explore and it was apparent the wait was excruciating for many of them.

“These kids serve our country, too,” she said.

Gottler and a number of others have spent the last week with the young people — ranging in age from 8 to 18 — at the Alabama 4-H Center, courtesy of Alabama’s Operation Military Kids.

Each child at the camp has a family member serving the country in the military.

“It’s been hot, but wonderful,” Gottler said. “This is a great way to say thank you to these military families.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the youngsters were treated to up close and personal looks at the Iroquois, as well as a Chinook helicopter, a cargo transport truck and a Hummer vehicle — equipment many of their family members use in their work daily in the military.

Charlene Hines, who works with Alabama 4-H and is project manager for Operation Military Kids, said 60 percent of the children at the camp have a parent who either just returned from active duty or will be leaving soon. The remaining 40 percent will have a parent who will be deployed later in this year or early next year.

“These are not normal military kids. These are kids whose parents are in the Alabama National Guard,” Hines said. “When you ask them what their mom or dad does, they will tell you that ‘Dad is a mechanic,’ or ‘Mom is a nurse.’ They don’t think of their parents as soldiers. Yet, they face all the stresses that a military kid faces.”

Operation Military Kids seeks to provide a support system and some relief from that stress.

The children at the Alabama 4-H camp have spent the week learning archery, swimming and canoeing, creating arts and crafts, rock wall climbing and simply enjoying interacting with other children who are facing some of the same stressors, Hines said.

The military equipment on display for the children was provided courtesy of the Alabama National Guard, Hines said. The program is funded through a grant. This year is the second such camp. The first was hosted in 2005.

“We want to be sort of a safety net for these children,” Hines said.