SALADO, Texas – After hours of playing games at summer camp, the youngsters gathered around a table to write letters to their fathers.
But these letters were not going to be mailed home. A counselor explained that the notes would be tied to helium balloons and released in tribute to the fathers, many of whom were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Are we gonna send them to heaven?" one child asked.
At Camp Good Grief, all the children are mourning for a parent or other relative who died while serving in the military.
"Age doesn't matter. The grief process is the same," said Vanessa Gabrielson, a camp counselor whose father was killed in Iraq in 2003. "Every time I go, it gets easier, and I learn something from them."
Some of the campers have never discussed their parent's death. Others describe the grisly details of war matter-of-factly. But being with children who have endured a similar loss provides comfort, counselors said.
More than 20 children ranging from 8 to 11 years old attended the one-day camp this past week in Salado, near Fort Hood. About 40 parents and other adults attended a separate survivor seminar, also run by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
The nonprofit organization known as TAPS has held an annual children's camp in Alexandria, Virginia, since 1994. It began holding camps and adult seminars nationwide last fall in cities near military bases.
The children and their parents grieve for family members who were killed by roadside bombs, snipers or crashes. Others lost relatives to accidents, illness or suicide after their loved ones returned to the U.S.
At the camp, children share their feelings while drawing pictures and stuffing Play-Doh into uninflated balloons to make "stress balls." Teenagers in another room discuss their emotions and write in journals.
Cierra Becker, 7, punched star-shaped holes around a drawing of her dad in his Army uniform and recalled a father-daughter dance just before he was deployed last fall.
She wore a red dress — not too frilly, she said — and they had a blast.
"They put on the hokey pokey on the dance floor, and my daddy liked that," she said, smiling.
Army Staff Sgt. Shane R. Becker was killed in Baghdad in April, less than two months after the birth of his second daughter, Cheyenna. Cierra wore her red dress at his funeral.
"When my daddy was first killed, I got really mad. I went outside and I had to scream," Cierra said. "I had a kennel for my dog. It was heavy, but I picked it up and I threw it on its side."
The girl's mother, Crystal Becker of Beeville in south Texas, was grateful for the chance to talk with fellow survivors and for her daughter to meet other grieving kids.
"Not knowing what will be said about this war or what the outcome will be, it wouldn't be fair to her not to be around other children who've been through this," Becker said.
"It's hard enough losing someone, but losing them to a situation as politically charged as this? I'm not going to let anything take away from their father. They will know he wanted to go to Iraq and wanted to jump out of airplanes because he loved his country, but he loved us so much, too."
At the end of the day, the children took their letter-laden balloons and walked outside.
Nine-year-old Rolando Guereca chose a blue balloon because it was his father's favorite color. He walked behind his 7-year-old twin brothers, Angel and Nathan, who also held balloons.
"We miss you, Daddy. Your room is so shiny and clean. You are the best dad ever," Rolando wrote to his father, Army Sgt. Jose Guereca Jr., who was killed in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.
As the children released the balloons, there was a chorus of voices.
"I love you, Daddy!"