National Guard camp supports soldiers’ families

“National Guard summer camp” might evoke memories of shining brass, polishing boots and cleaning rifles for Louisianians of a certain age, but a much younger group likely will associate the term with a fun-filled outdoor experience.

Some 112 children of Louisiana Army and Air National Guard personnel are attending a four-day camp through Friday at Feliciana Retreat Center, a Presbyterian facility deep in the piney woods of East Feliciana Parish, not far from the Mississippi state line.

Children 14 to 17 years old attended a Youth Leadership Camp Friday through Monday, and boys and girls 8 to 13 are finishing out the week. Some of the older kids were chosen as junior counselors for the second session.

The campers participated in rock climbing, ziplining, mud volleyball, swimming, canoeing, rocket construction and launching activities, and a challenge course.

Although the primary focus of the camps is providing safe, fun and entertaining activities for the children, they also are part of a larger effort to support the men and women in National Guard uniform, said Maj. Will Saint, family programs coordinator for the Louisiana National Guard.

“We focus on supporting the ‘war fighters’ of this nation. The No. 1 thing that makes it harder for them to do their job is worrying about their families,” Saint said. “These kids have been through extended periods of separation.”

In a school classroom with 30 children, only one or two may be able to relate to the stress of having parents deployed in a war zone or on extended emergency missions, Saint said.

“Every kid here understands it,” he said.

“Some of these kids have a parent overseas right now,” said Paul Meeker, a St. Tammany Parish school employee and first sergeant of a National Guard public affairs unit.

Junior counselor Chase Reynolds, 15, lives at Camp Beauregard near Pineville, where his stepfather is an active-duty Guardsman.

“This is really the only camp I find I like. We’re all family,” said Reynolds, whose stepfather, aunt and uncle were deployed overseas in 2008.

At the time, he and a cousin were “very much worried” about the deployment, he said.

“We were always thinking about if they will be safe and come back home,” Reynolds said.

“Why is a military environment putting on a youth camp? Well, if we say we’re going to take care of the needs of the families, the Guardsmen are probably going to stay in (the Guard) because they’ll feel good about the organization they’re working for,” said Lt. Col. Ed Bush, Saint’s boss and the director of several efforts to reintegrate returning National Guard members to civilian life.

“If you can take care of the families, that’s a big part of it. That’s the big three: spouse, kids and career … kind of a big three-legged stool. That’s what it’s all about,” Bush said.

Sebastian Price, of Baton Rouge, managed to scale the 30-foot “rock wall” Wednesday morning to earn a ride on a 300-foot zipline.

“It was fun,” the 8-year-old said of the ride through a clearing in the woods, but he described the climb up as “scary.”

“It was scary looking down,” he said.

Saint said the activities teach children to overcome physical challenges, learn social skills and develop resilience.

“In some instances, you have some who can’t overcome their fear. You make sure they are allowed to fail, and help them learn how to bounce back,” Saint said.