Retreating For Unity

We have all read the bumper-sticker plea, “Support Our Troops,” but other than displaying a magnet on your car, how can Americans really show support and concern for service members and their families?

One organization is partnering with the national parks to give families a much-needed break from the stress of wartime deployments.

The National Military Family Association developed the Operation Purple Summer Camp program in 2004 with 12 camps for 1,000 military children. In 2010, the program now has 68 camps in 37 states and two overseas locations, and has sent 40,000 military children to summer camp for free.

After years of experience with traditional camps, the association has branched out to include a retreat program so the entire family can have the experience.

What makes these retreats different? The point isn’t to get away--it’s to come together.

An Awkward Reunion

In 2009, the association created the program based on the idea that military families needed a place to relax and reconnect after long periods of separation due to deployment. While the initial reunion of a military family is filled with joy, it is the months following the reconnection that often strain a family’s relationship. The service member has missed birthdays, holidays, school events and the chance to make memories with the family.

But with the retreat program, not only do families get to enjoy time together, but they also have an opportunity to meet other military families going through the same experiences. This camaraderie also shows parents and children that they are not the only ones experiencing the difficult process of reintegration.

Family Bonds

Although each family retreat is different because each location highlights the unique attributes and atmosphere of its environment, there are some similarities.

For instance, families are paired with specialized field-science educators and staff members, who guide families through various activities, such as nature hikes, canoeing, campfires and outdoor exploration.

Besides the opportunity to experience a national park, the family retreats include structured activities developed by the FOCUS Program (Families OverComing Under Stress). These activities highlight areas of strength and resilience in the family and promote growth.

In addition to the family retreat program, the association also offers Operation Purple Healing Adventures for Wounded Warriors and their families. Many wounded service members are not able to enjoy the activities they previously shared with their families. This retreat is designed to help them rebuild family bonds, establish new roles, negotiate responsibilities, and explore new activities to enjoy together in the future.

Welcome To The Neighborhood

Here are several ways for your organization to recognize military families:

• Offer scholarships or discounts for programs as a show of support and appreciation for military families’ service.

• Promote the organization year-round. While the programs and the organization might be well-known in the community, military families are always on the move. Make sure local installations are aware of all you have to offer. A welcome packet with up-to-date information on programs is a great tool for any new family in the community.

• Be aware that military families are in every community. Even if an organization is not near a military installation, National Guard and Reserve families are a part of communities nationwide. Encourage staff members and volunteers to seek out the military families or children they work with, and recognize the challenges they might be facing with a parent deployed. To better understand the challenges children of military families encounter, download the association’s toolkit at

• Help facilitate communication by providing families with a supportive and relaxing environment for organic conversation and spontaneous sharing--something military families miss with a deployed service member. This communication can help them “get back on track” as they build cohesion, reconnect, and rediscover what they enjoy about one another.

• Leave politics out of your interactions with military families. In a study by the Army War College, the third-highest factor cited in a child’s well-being was the public’s perception of the war. Adapt a “Families Serve Too” attitude, and recognize their service and sacrifice, no matter what your feelings are about a war.

• Reach out to the local installation, Guard or Reserve unit to determine individual needs. Work together to support local military families. The association hears time and time again that community support is recognized and appreciated by military families.

To learn more about the National Military Family Association and what you can do to support military families, visit

Bailey Bernius is a public relations specialist for the National Military Family Association. He can be reached via e-mail at