As part of our series this week on the education of military children, Kavitha Cardoza of member station WAMU visits a special camp that helps these children cope.
It’s Saturday morning and I’m at a TAPS camp in Philadelphia. This could be any standard hotel room filled with cute kids ages 5 to 7 — until you look at the pictures they’re drawing.
Six-year-old Grayson Garber tells me about his picture: “This is my dad watching TV and this is a graveyard.”
“He’s watching TV in the graveyard?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Grayson.
Grayson is from New York. His father, Richard, died in 2011.
“His name was Richard. He was in the Navy,” Grayson tells me.”He got hit by a bomb and also he died because a big missile hit him.”
Catherine Clark is sitting next to Grayson, furiously coloring with blue around a winged figure. She’s 5 1/2 years old.
“My dad’s an angel and he’s about to swim in Hawaii,” she explains.
Catherine’s father, Kevin, died in Afghanistan in 2012.
Dylan Bayless is 8. He’s written his name on a bright yellow star. And right next to it is the name “David.” That’s his stepfather, who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2009.
“Dear David,” Dylan reads to me, “I miss you so much. I want you to come back please.”
“I really didn’t want him to die,” says Dylan. “I said, ‘Don’t go out there because you’re going to die,’ and he didn’t listen.”
Vanessa Daley, who helps run the camp, says the children see each other’s badges with pictures of their loved ones who’ve died, and feel less alone.
“One of the parents came down and said, ‘Thank you so much.’ This was her daughter’s first time and she came up to the room and she said, ‘Mom, everybody in my room, all of them, have a button on like me. Their dads died too.’ And so they just connect with that.”
Daley says even though these children are young, they carry around very deep emotions. Children here do an activity during which they write a letter to whomever they’re angry at.
Daley explains: “If it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, they write the letter to the bad guy that shot them or threw a bomb at them. They’re just really angry, ‘Why did you have to do that? Why did you have to throw it at my dad?’ “
For teens, this TAPS camp can be calming as they deal with loss during an already difficult age.
Madison Cheever, 14, says this is the only place she can talk about her dad, Rob, as much as she wants.
“You don’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, what if someone makes fun of me,’ because they know how hard it is,” she says.
Just three days after Sgt. 1st Class Robert Cheever returned to the U.S. after his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, he had a stroke.
When the family was told he wouldn’t recover, they moved from an Army post in New York to rural Minnesota, where Rob’s family lived. His wife, Jill Bailey, says her children’s sorrow was compounded by leaving the only home they had known.
“Even though we had moved back to the Midwest to our family, they’re all civilians,” says Bailey. “It was culture shock, total culture shock. The military, they’re a family. They all come together. You have your Army sisters, Army brothers, you’re family.”
Rob Cheever died a month later. He was 37. Now his daughter, Madison, says she can’t relate to other children in school.
“They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I lost a grandparent,’ ” she says. “They don’t know how it feels to lose someone who would possibly walk you down the aisle one day.”
When Madison talks about the fun times with her father, her face lights up.
“He took everything to the max,” she says. “He broke his leg two times skydiving.”
Madison fills her journals with letters she’s written to her dad because she’s sure he reads them: “Because then I still can remember him and he’s not slowly fading away and just being a memory.”
She says when they visit his grave, she sits down and talks to him.
“Until my mom finally says we need to go,” Madison says, laughing. “She says I’m definitely his child who’s always talking and never stops.”
When you hear the children giggling and playing tag, you are so glad they have found a space where they can giggle and play tag and just be children.
Vanessa Daley, with TAPS, listens as children share what they’ve learned at camp.
“Even if someone died in your family you can still have fun,” one says.
“You can share your feelings that you never shared with people,” says another.
“What I learned was that you guys are really, really brave,” Daley tells them.
Daley herself lost her father 11 years ago when he was deployed in Iraq and was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She wants these children to know there are two paths they can take.
“You can take that grief and you can hold it inside and it can be very negative,” says Daley. “I just want the kids to see that there’s another road and that’s the road that their parents would want them to take.”
Daley wants these children to know that it’s OK to be sad about their parent’s death, while also being proud of their service.
This story was part of a series from member station WAMU in Washington, D.C., by Kavitha Cardoza, called Military Children. The documentary project explored the challenges facing the nation’s nearly 2 million military children.