“All right Frank, how are you doing? Is your heart rate down? Are you ready for this?” Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Gear, rappel master, asked Frank Elert, a 15-year-old camper after he landed safely to the ground from a 35-foot rappel tower.
Frank’s job upon landing at the bottom of the rappel tower was to act as the belay ensuring his fellow camper Nolan rappelled safely down the tower at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin during their three-day camp.
“Nolan, you are locked in and nothing is going to happen to you,” Gear said, reassuring the camper before he began his descent down the tower. “Don’t worry - Frank’s got ya.”
Frank and Nolan were among the 100 children attending the Wisconsin National Guard Youth Camp, hosted by the Wisconsin National Guard Family Program July 29-31 at Volk Field and Fort McCoy. Campers were divided into three age groups - 8-10, 11- 13, and 14-17.
To successfully conduct its dual mission as the state’s first military responder and the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, the National Guard relies on support from the community, employers and strong families, all of which ensure the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard are ready to serve their state and nation when called. Youth camp is a key component of overall family readiness.
The camp invites children from all military families to attend camp and provides them with an opportunity to discover and make new friends while engaging in teamwork. It offers an opportunity to network with other military kids, a critical role for military children during deployments. It also helps children gain an understanding of some of the duties their parents perform while away, which can help ease a child’s fear of the unknown.
“Military youth for the National Guard and Reserves live a unique lifestyle being that they are more geographically dispersed than active duty youth,” said Shawna Wyman, Child and Youth Program coordinator. “By coming to Youth Camp they are connecting with other military youth who live the same lifestyle that they do.”
Mallory Keating, a 16-year-old whose dad recently retired from the Navy, agreed.
“Camp helps because everyone here has a family member that is in the military, or was, and you can relate to them,” Keating said. “They know what it is like to have their parents be gone for a year. We also get the opportunity to see and experience a little bit of what our parents are doing while they are gone.”
Campers participated in many military-related events: a rappel tower, confidence and leadership development course, self-defense class, land navigation course, urban area water war, water safety and first aid training, and more. These events presented obstacles the campers had to solve and overcome as a team.
Wyman, after more than four years assisting with coordinating Youth Camp events, most enjoys seeing the children’s confidence grow during camp.
“My favorite part of camp is seeing the children when they first arrive,” Wyman said. “They are tentative and drawn back because they do not know what to expect but then they begin making friends and doing fun things they normally wouldn’t do.
“Like today, for example,” Wyman continued, “there was a young boy in the 8-to-10-year-old group who was afraid of heights and was afraid to do the cargo net obstacle, but he pushed through it and at the end he had the most glorious smile on his face because he accomplished something he didn’t think he could."
Volunteers are mostly comprised of service members who understand the military lifestyle and duties first hand. Campers learned drill and ceremony, called cadence, and learned about other aspects of military life from these service members.
“My favorite part of camp is marching around and kind of being in the military, getting to experience a little of what my dad does,” said Lillyan Burmesch, a 16-year-old camper attending her seventh camp.
“Having a family member in the military can be a rewarding, but it also has its challenges,” Burmesch continued. “I like having a parent in the military, because you get to learn new things and meet new people but sometimes it’s frustrating. In those times I remember the fun I have had at camp.”
The camp has three main goals for the youth: provide opportunities for personal growth, develop positive connections and citizenship, and conduct camp in a safe and professional manner that demonstrates value to our militaries families.
“Despite the children not being in the military, they still serve and experience the separation while their family member is away on deployment, drill or at other training,” Wyman said. “Camp helps them validate their patriotism and devotion to their country.”
Now in its 23rd year, the camp staff continuously strives to make the event enjoyable for the campers.
“I love camp - it is my favorite part of the year,” Burmesch said. “I encourage other kids who haven’t been to camp to look into it. It is so much fun and you get to learn so much.”
Youth Camp registration for next year can be found at www.wisconsinmilitary.org