By Jim Wenzel, WTC Stratcom
AW2 Director COL Gregory D. Gadson shows photos from the explosion that injured him during deployment in Iraq to children attending Operation Purple® camp.
Although Camp Wewa can accommodate about 2,000 campers a year, the Central Florida YMCA facility whose name means “many waters” had a very special group of visitors this week as 37 teens and pre-teens from the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium took part in Operation Purple®.
Operation Purple® was developed by the National Military Family Association in 2004 to help service members stay connected to their children. Over the years, it expanded to multiple locations across the United States and the program will have served close to 45,000 children by the end of the year.
At Camp Wewa, Operation Purple® provided a ton of outdoor activities that include “Goliath”, a giant rock wall and zip line, a high ropes course, evening campfire, and tubing on one of its four surrounding lakes. In fact, the kids enjoyed a visit from AW2 Director COL Gregory D. Gadson just after they came off the lake.
First to meet Gadson were Morgan, Brianna, and Justin. Initially shy when they first walked up, they quickly built a rapport with Gadson when they asked him to share his personal story about the improvised explosive device (IED) that severely wounded him and blew him out of his vehicle.
The pictures of the burned out Humvee on his iPhone made an instant connection between him and the sons and daughters of Soldiers who faced similar threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who were injured stateside.
This openness allowed Gadson an opportunity for some real conversation—which anyone with a teenager knows is hard to come by. “What is the biggest thing you’ve learned as the child of a wounded warrior?” asked Gadson.
Morgan was the first to answer. “You have to grow up faster and take more responsibility.”
Her simple remark reflected the collective experience of most children of severely wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers. As “Army brats”, most Soldiers’ children deal with the reality of multiple moves, frequent deployments, and living within the means of a military paycheck. The children of severely wounded Soldiers and Veterans share the additional burdens and responsibilities of being assistant caregivers to parents with significant medical and non-medical needs.
As a double amputee, Gadson’s response to Morgan came with a wealth of personal experience. “It’s a good thing. Something that happens in your life doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” he said. “Look at me. I wouldn’t change anything about my life and you will have an appreciation that most other kids won’t have. You can help a lot of people by sharing your perspective.”
Speaking to one of the camp counselors as the kids were loading back onto the bus, Gadson touched on the important role Operation Purple® plays at the AW2 Symposium every year. He told the kids that the camp was an opportunity for a “collective experience”—a chance to talk about their similar circumstances and the uniqueness of living with a wounded warrior. As a group, almost all of the kids thought the best part of Operation Purple® camp was Camp Wewa, especially tubing on the lake.
The camp counselors were just as impressed with the campers. Their ability to get along and their desire to get involved and try new things simply blew them away.
All of the participants at Symposium, both delegates and staff, realize the importance of Operation Purple® and having the kids with them in Orlando, FL. They’ve had a lot of fun at camp, but they’ve also demonstrated an ethos shared by those who support the men and women who were wounded and injured in the defense of our nation.
Turning to a member of his staff, Gadson summed up the character of the teens attending AW2 Symposium’s Operation Purple® camp by saying, “They don’t even know how resilient they are.”