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National Guard children go on drill to cope with deployment

Madison Rose wearing her father's sunglasses. hspace=4

Nearly half of North Carolina's National Guard troops are currently deployed overseas, more than 4,000 soldiers. The last time the state had this many National Guard soldiers deployed was in 2003, and we've reported recently on the state's efforts to do a better job supporting families of those soldiers. The person in charge of making that happen is Diane Coffill who directs family support programs for the Guard. "There is nothing like being in rural North Carolina - or any state in the nation - and feeling like you are the only one who is doing this and no one truly understands," says Coffill. It sounds simple, but what the National Guard has discovered is that since its soldiers don't live on base, just getting their families together once in awhile makes a big difference, especially for the kids. WFAE's Julie Rose spent time at one of those gatherings recently in Statesville. The black sunglasses wrap all the way to her ears and reach low enough to cover her 6-year-old cheekbones. But Madison Rose HAD to wear them. "These are my Daddy's sunglasses. He got them all scratched up," says Madison. "And these are the only sun glasses I want to wear, cause I miss him very much." He's in Iraq with the North Carolina National Guard. Madison's got her camouflage Army suit on, too. Her mom says she insisted on dressing the part for her day at the guard armory where she and about 30 other kids are getting taste of what National Guard soldiers do on drill. "Attention! Stand at ease!" commands Staff Sergeant Ronald Rhodes. "It's nice for her to see what Daddy does, you know, a little bit of it," says Madison's mom Cathy Rose. "I think it's always really nice for her to be around other children whose dads are gone too," says Rose. "Where we are, we're the only ones. Everybody else? Their dad's at home. And um, you know, every time we do something like this it just helps a little bit to not hurt so bad that he's gone." For the next few hours, Madison will learn to do sit-ups like her dad. Salute like her dad. Fold a flag like her dad. "What do we do now?" a soldier asks Madison, holding the ends of a large U.S. flag. "First we fold it in half," she answers. The North Carolina National Guard started holding these daytime drill activities back in 2003 - around the time Madison's dad deployed for the first time. Thousands of kids were suddenly without their mother or father and their parents were calling Alice Dean with troubling stories. "Children not sleeping. Anger. Acting out. Just, worried about what goes on," recalls Dean. In a lot of cases, she says it was what the kids didn't know that seemed to worry them most. Dean runs child and youth programs for the National Guard, so she organized a day of activities at the armory in Morrisville: 35 kids came to march, salute and ask some tough questions: "We had one child ask what happens if my daddy gets shot in the back?" says Dean. "We had a female medic explain that they provide first aid. Another child asked, well if you have to carry them out in a helicopter, the helicopter gets shot down? And we had a pilot explain about self-sealing fuel tanks. Kind of to reinforce to that child that they do make it." And if those answers aren't enough, Dean has counselors on hand to talk about the really heavy stuff with kids one-on-one. The Monday after that first camp, she got calls from several parents saying their children had finally slept through the night. Since then, 2,600 children from toddlers to late teens have participated in Kids on Guard camps, and a nonprofit was formed to raise the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to run them nearly every weekend. Typically they happen at local armories and guard soldiers run the activities. Just being around someone in uniform seems to help some of the kids, like Sebrena Pearson's two youngest. Their big brother Brian is in Iraq: "That one that's kneeling right there kind of resembles my son," Pearson says, gesturing to a soldier working with the children. "My little girl has been holding his hand. So you know it's an emotional reassurance for them that 'There's all these other soldiers still here, so brother's coming back.'" The soldiers let them crawl around army trucks, put on helmets and try out fancy equipment like night vision goggles. Instead of arts and crafts, they learn to stop bleeding and speak military code. "Alpha, Mike and India," recites six-year-old Madison Rose. She's practicing so she'll be ready the next time her Dad calls home. "I'm just gonna tell him that I learned how to be a soldier. I learned how to talk on the radio like him. And I've done everything I can do to be like him."