GILEAD, Maine — When a mom or a dad in the Maine National Guard deploys, their children are often left to wonder what will happen without having a support group of peers going through the same experience.
“The kids feel like they’re all alone,” Master Sgt. Barbara Claudel, organizer of the Maine National Guard Youth Camp, said Monday as campers scampered all around her. “It’s not like there is one big base in Maine. Our Guard members live all over — in every nook and cranny in the state — and this camp lets the kids know they are not alone.”
The Army Guard’s Bog Brook training area in western Maine plays host to a pair of week-long youth camps, where around 200 Maine youngsters, ages 5 to 18, come together for camaraderie and campfires.
“It’s a typical summer camp with a military flair,” Claudel said, listing rappelling, archery, kayaking, hiking, swimming, a ropes course and an overnight bivouac as activities.
Brennan MacDonald, 18, who graduated with a class of around 300 from Bangor High School this year and is commander of the camp’s Bravo Company, said “only a couple” of his classmates were in military families.
“It’s awesome here because it’s like a second family,” he said.
His dad, Senior Master Sgt. Andrew MacDonald of the 101st Air Refueling Wing, has deployed overseas more than once and the teenager said he has come to count on the friendships he’s made at camp over the last 10 years.
His dad usually volunteers at camp but this year is away at training, but his younger brother, Patrick, is a camper.
“They all share similar experiences,” camp co-organizer retired Chief Master Sgt. Steve Hughes said. “Many have parents who have been deployed or who will be deployed. It’s that similar fraternity that connect them.”
“These kids are going to school with other kids who don’t know what it’s like to have a parent missing for a year,” he said. “That is why they look forward to [camp] all year long.”
The campers are broken into groups, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies. Each camper pays $55 to attend the camp with $5 of the money allocated for them to spend at the “candy shack.”
In addition to food and activities, there are interesting attractions.
“The Birdman,” Sgt. 1st Class Adam Farrington, who helps rehabilitate injured or abandoned animals, also had pelts, bones and live animals — an owl, a hawk, pigeons, turtles, worms, and a baby groundhog — from Maine on hand for the campers.
He also brought along “Gunther,” an 11-year-old tortoise that he adopted after it was abandoned.
There are 92 campers at this week’s session, four from Coast Guard families, four from the Army Reserves, one from the Navy and the rest split about 50-50 with Army Guard and Air Guard members.
About 35 junior counselors, who are all former campers who have returned to be mentors, also are on hand along with adult volunteers — colonels to privates — who donate their time to run the camp.
Technical Sgt. Bob Mooney, of the 101st in Bangor, is on hand for the 10th year in a row to help with the ropes course and rappelling. He just returned three weeks ago from Turkestan where he spent three months working to dismantle the military base.
“It gives them the sense of teamwork, trust and it’s something outside of their comfort zone in a controlled environment,” he said of the ropes course, which is called “a confidence course.”
Sgt. 1st Class Adam Knoblach of Headquarter Company in Augusta has volunteered for 14 years and has three kids attending camp this year, his oldest is a junior counselor.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be with my own kids,” he said. “Out here I have about 100 kids. I keep coming back because you have to make it better than it was last year.”
The adults get as much out of camp as the kids, said Claudel.
“Military people are all mission focused and sometimes they have their blinders on,” she said. “When these guys return to work, they see their soldiers in a different way. They remember they have families.”
Ann LePage visits
Ann LePage, wife of Gov. Paul LePage, makes it a point to visit each camp and attended Monday’s session.
“I chose supporting men and women in uniform as my cause. I’ve only done it for, this will be my fourth year, and you guys have done it your entire life so because of that I want to thank you,” she told the campers.
This year, because of scheduling, she did not participate in any activities, but “last year, it was hot fudge sundaes and they had ketchup or mustard on the bottom — you didn’t know what you were getting,” LePage said.
The year before that, she participated in camp olympics. She was in a pie-eating contest during her first visit, which is also when she arrived in a Blackhawk helicopter.
LePage was met first by the junior counselors, who were heading out to go cliff jumping at a local swimming hole. They asked her opinion about gun rights and if she owned one.
LePage said her husband bought her a gun but no bullets, which she went out and purchased herself last year. She said her husband has an AR-15 rifle.
“I had to explain to the painters, when they came to paint, ‘don’t let that scare you,’” she told the campers, getting a round of laughter.
Just before leaving to head up to the cabins, where the younger campers were waiting, she told the teenagers that she had a big surprise that would be announced on Tuesday.
That announcement is that she will skydive with military veteran Travis Mills, who lost both arms and both legs in Afghanistan in 2012, on Aug. 9 to raise money for the Northern Maine Veterans Museum and Community Center.
When she got to the younger campers, LePage thanked them for supporting their parents. Several then thanked her and a few told short stories about their lives, and she autographed a few T-shirts.
“I’ve been here since I was pretty much born,” Isabelle Farrington, the daughter of “The Birdman,” told LePage.
“My dad is in the Coast Guard and this camp has meant a lot to me,” a boy said.
“My dad got hurt in the war the year I was born,” Alyssa Ardry told LePage. “I want to be an Army doctor and help people like my dad.”
After LePage left, Ardry said her dad, Army Spc. Craig Ardry, has retired.
He survived an attack on his convoy as he and other soldiers were leaving their base in Mosul, Iraq in April 2004, that killed fellow soldier Sgt. Christopher D. Gelineau of Portland.
“I don’t have many friends who have dads or moms in the military,” the 9-year-old from Pittsfield said. “It feels really good to be here with other kids in the military.”