Noal Hazelgrove grimaced when asked how he had done.
The 11-year-old boy from Charleston, Illinois, had just completed a military-style obstacle course set up Saturday in the Center Grove area.
“I fell down. It was hard,” Hazelgrove said, beads of sweat glistening on his forehead.
The grimace then gave way to a broad grin.
“But it was fun.”
Hazelgrove’s words were part of the motive behind Saturday’s event. The Military Mini-Boot Camp for Kids was organized by Helping Hands for Freedom, a national organization dedicated to helping military children, particularly ones whose parents have been killed, wounded or are currently deployed overseas.
About 25 children attended the camp Saturday at the Larry Knotts Farm and Shooting Range, off Travis Road.
Noal is the son of Brian Hazelgrove, an Edinburgh native and Army
chief warrant officer and helicopter pilot who was killed in action near Mosul, Iraq, in January 2004. Saturday would have been Brian Hazelgrove’s 40th birthday.
Saturday morning was just the start of a special day for Noal. He traveled after the camp with his mother, Megan Merrill, to Rest Haven Cemetery in Edinburgh where they planned to visit Brian Hazelgrove’s grave.
“I’m kind of treating (today) like he is still alive,” Noal said. “We are going to get a birthday cake and light candles for him.”
Later that day, Noal was the guest of honor at the Greenwood Freedom Festival. Helping Hands was giving him a Survivor of the Year award as well, Chief Executive Officer Darin Fishburn said.
The purpose of the boot camp and the organization is to help families — especially children — cope with the loss of or separation from loved ones by establishing some common experiences, Fishburn said.
“A lot of times the children feel like their mom or dad forgot them,” Fishburn said. “They didn’t come home from war or if they do, they are not back to normal because they have issues and they don’t want to rub off on their kids in a bad way. They know what we are doing today is something mom or dad did.”
Activities at the boot camp included the obstacle course, a tug-of-war contest and firing weapons on a range.
They went through a gun safety presentation before practicing shooting.
“They get to shoot a weapon so it helps them find out more of what mom or dad went through when they were getting ready for the military and feel more connected to their parents, even if they are no longer here,” Fishburn said.
Another goal of the organization is to build a community feeling among families of veterans, said Patrick Shannon, co-founder of Helping Hands for Freedom and a veteran of the Marines and Indiana National Guard who was wounded in action.
“It’s just a chance to compete and have fun and get to know other kids who are going through the same thing as they are,” he said. “It’s just a launching pad for them to meet others and enjoy themselves while they are doing it. It’s just so those families can be around people in the same situation and feel normal.”
Shannon understands the needs of those families better than most, Fishburn said. When Shannon was recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., his daughter Brenna back in Indiana made a habit of singing the national anthem so that she could feel closer to him, Fishburn said.
Brenna Shannon, now 11, began Saturday’s boot camp by performing the national anthem, leaving many in the crowd with tears in their eyes. She has been singing the song at public events and donating any payment to the organization, Patrick Shannon said.
More than 100 people had attended a similar event at the farm last year, but the chance of bad weather this year prompted a number of cancellations. Still, families attended from as far as Illinois and Kentucky, Fishburn said. Priority was given to children of deceased, wounded and currently deployed members of the military, followed by children of other retired veterans and public safety personnel. The cost was covered by sponsors of the organization.
While nowhere near as intense as military basic training, children at the camp did experience some of what boot camp is really like in an effort to give them an idea of what their parents went through.
“It’s lighthearted mostly, but if they get lazy they will get yelled at a little,” Fishburn said.
“You might hear a ‘Drop down solider’ or ‘Make your dad proud.’ They are graded on points, execution and time. It’s the rope climb that nobody likes. No offense, but nowadays kids can do it all on Nintendo or Sega or whatever and they don’t spend a lot of time exercising. This will give them a taste of what they would need to do in the military.”
For Megan Merrill, Noal Hazelgrove’s mother and an Army veteran herself, the program and others like it provide a way that can help her son know more about his father. But the event also can be emotionally trying, she said.
“We didn’t start coming around and doing events until the past couple of years and the first couple of times it’s very hard, especially when you see the children,” she said.
“You see them get a bond with each other, and that is priceless. Even when we pulled up here today he recognized a few of the kids he’s met at other programs and he’s excited to see them. As parents, to watch our children bond in ways that we can’t necessarily get with them, it’s rewarding.”
The activities also help foster a positive feeling about the military that Noal might otherwise have trouble building after his loss, she said.
“Both Noal’s father and I served in the Army. To this day I like to keep that military pride and respect for the military and veterans, so something like this helps them know that, if they choose this path, they can see that the military is physically challenging, but it’s not something he needs to be afraid of,” she said.
The timing of the camp and other activities Saturday was good for Noal, she said.
“With it being his dad’s birthday, he might be sad and want to go off by himself some and not talk about it,” Merrill said. “But it’s good for him to see that people remember him and that he should be proud. It’s good that this is happening on a day where there would normally be grief or sorrow for him. This can help soften that for him.”
The goal of the organization and the program is that children of the fallen and wounded not be forgotten, something Noal Hazelgrove appreciates.
“It’s a cool experience to see what our parents went through. It’s a good way to get to do what he did,” he said.
“I think it’s cool that they are going out of their way to do this.”