Need in the
Community: Families' Psychological Wellbeing
The military has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, and the lives of its families with it. Unlike previous wars in which most draftees were single, half of today's military is married -- with more than one million children.
Since 2001, military families have experienced unprecedented separation. Since 9/11, 876,000 of the 1.9 million service members who have deployed are parents. 245,000 have deployed twice, 91,000 three times, and 48,000 four or more times. Although the service member is the one exposed to hostile environments, his or her children bear the stress of uncertainty – when the separation will end, whether their parent is safe, and whether mom or dad is going to come home "the same."
A 2009 RAND Corporation study confirmed that military children are experiencing significantly higher levels of stress than their civilian friends – and that the wartime separation from a mom or dad is a major source of that inner tension -- and long after the service member returns home.
This stress has produced an alarming rise in the number of children seeking mental health care. According to the Pentagon, outpatient mental health visits for children of active duty service members increased 20% from 2007 to 2008. Another study found the number of military children at a high risk for anxiety to be 2.5 times the national level and higher than historical military samples.
In addition to the stress of having a parent away from home, most military children do not live on or near an installation, and many move every few years. This frequent uprooting from the "known" often compounds the issue because the child is less likely to have a strong support network in a new place, and trusted peer and adult networks are critical to strengthening the mental health of these children.
Each year the wars are extended, the need grows to expand effective programs that help the children who are healthy remain healthy – and to strengthen those who are weakening under the prolonged strain.
Our Solution: Operation Purple Children's Camps and
In the past seven years, almost 40,000 military children have attended our free overnight summer camps held throughout the Nation for children of the deployed. The camps serve active duty and Reserve Component, officer and enlisted, and all seven Uniformed Services' kids. The camps are unique in that they overlay a specialized curriculum infusing military-specific elements with those of traditional overnight summer camps.
Our Operation Purple program also hosts retreats focused on families trying to reconnect after living in different worlds for long periods during these wars. After repeated separations, many service members struggle to readjust smoothly at home and reestablish a parenting role with rapidly-growing children and spouses who worked hard to successfully adapt to life without them.
We also include retreats for families of the wounded. Many of the wounded are not able to enjoy some of the activities they previously shared with their families. Our retreats are designed to help them rebuild family bonds, establish new roles and responsibilities depending on the service members' injuries, and explore new activities to enjoy together moving forward.
Operation Purple alleviates the stress of deployment on military children and families by providing:
- A peer group to connect with and confide in about the unique challenges of the lifestyle
- Licensed behavioral health professionals who are readily available to meet varying emotional and psychological needs of campers, and help military children learn skills to cope with the unique situations they face
- Specialized programs incorporating the uplifting effects of physical activity, the calming effect of animals, and the healing power of the outdoors to help military youth learn new ways to reduce stress
- Activities enabling them to explore helicopters and Humvees, taste meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), speak with service members recently returned from war, scavenger hunt with global positioning systems, and play hide-and-seek wearing night-vision goggles. These reduce uncertainty about the safety and comfort of their parent(s)
- Community-service projects teaching military children to focus on the needs of others -- so they are distracted from thinking of their own needs and fears during wartime. As one U.S. teen noted, "Helping others heals us."
Program Cost: The average cost per camper is approximately $600, and the average camp cost (100 campers per week) is approximately $60,000.