in another life, i wrote a story for a military newspaper about a summer camp for kids whose parents were deployed. i didn’t do the story justice. it wasn’t what i wanted to write. others had published narratives about camps like these; invariably, they focused on the privations of these children’s lives. poor things, i could hear the reporters tutting. how miserable and noble they are in their suffering.
i didn’t want to write that piece. for one thing, it wasn’t true. i didn’t and don’t see the nobility of war, and that’s coming from a former military spouse. and i see the canonization of the military family as part of the enshrinement of war in general. do we deserve respect? you bet your ass. are we to be beatified for loving our family members the way anyone else does, which sometimes includes arguing and rolling eyes and maybe not always being nice to one another and being petulant about how long they’ve been gone? why?
but beyond that, i sensed it wasn’t the story the kids wanted me to write. yes, they were all at camp for the same reason. yes, they had counseling sessions in which they talked about the emotions associated with their parents’ absence. and that was important. but this was also a real camp, where they stayed in cabins and went canoeing and braved the ropes course with eyes squeezed shut on the zipline. that’s the angle i wanted. yes, they’re military kids. but they’re also kids.
of course, i reversed it. the angle became yes, this is a regular camp, but it’s also different this way. in retrospect, though i didn’t lay it on as thickly as the major media outlets tended to, i did focus too much on the military aspect of the camp, and that was perhaps unnecessary. but not to acknowledge it at all would have been silly—they had drill-offs, after all—and even insulting. had i the chance to do it over, i might have tried focusing more on the fun, “normal” camp activities. i was aware that i had the responsibility for shaping a narrative around what was, after all, my view of someone else’s experience. i didn’t own this place or this event. it wasn’t about me at all. did i make it enough about the kids? did i make it too much about their parents? did i earn their trust? did i squander it?
but there was that commonality. and in the end, that’s what the camp was about. what was great, from the campers’ perspective, about going to a camp for military kids wasn’t group therapy or making artwork for the VA hospital. it wasn’t really even about canoeing. (well, okay. it was mostly about canoeing). it was about the other military kids. sitting in a group on the tetherball court as i took notes, they told me they looked forward to this camp every year. for many whose parents were attached to a guard or reserve unit, they were the only military kids in their schools. this was the only group of people their age who got what it was like. they kept in touch with one another; they all exchanged email addresses and IM handles, spreading the word about who was coming back to camp next year, making plans to sit together on the bus. probably now they friend each other on facebook and follow one another’s twitter feeds. probably they text each other from across the country.
it made me happy and sad. i wish i had a camp full of people who got me. i think we all do.
next year, i’d like to go to camp for a week. i’d like all of us, even (especially) those of us who didn’t even realize we needed someone to understand us, to show up and do the ropes course. i’m terrified of heights, but i’ll give it a try if you will.