They call me "Freefall": My time at Operation Purple

Kaitlyn Mayor, an Eglin Air Force Base dependent, poses in the Ocoee River in Tennessee during the Hurlburt Field Operation Purple trip through the Appalachian Trail, June 14-25. Operation Purple is a free of charge summer camp for children of deployed military members of all ranks and services.  (Courtesy photo)

Kaitlyn Mayor, an Eglin Air Force Base dependent, poses in the Ocoee River in Tennessee during the Hurlburt Field Operation Purple trip through the Appalachian Trail, June 14-25. Operation Purple is a free of charge summer camp for children of deployed military members of all ranks and services. (Courtesy photo)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- Editor's Note: Operation Purple is a free of charge summer camp for children of deployed military members of all ranks and services. According to the program's website, the National Military Family Association created the program in 2004 to help military children experience carefree fun while learning coping skills to deal with war-related stress and fostering relationships with children in similar situations. Kaitlyn, 15, is an Eglin Air Force Base dependent who participated on Hurlburt Field's Operation Purple trip through the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia June 14-25. Del Mucci, Hurlburt Field Youth Center director, recommended Kaitlyn's story for this commentary.

Whenever my older brothers came back from each Operation Purple during the last few summers, I always wondered why they thought it was so special. They told such amazing stories about their adventures in the woods but it always seemed stronger if you were right there with them.

So when I signed up for this year's camp, I knew it was my turn to follow in my brothers' footsteps. (Mr. Mucci even nicknamed my brothers "Peat" and "Repeat" with me being "Three-peat.") But instead of thinking about the stories I would one day tell, I wondered more if I had the courage to handle those mountains and rivers myself. In fact, as I told my friends about the obstacles and opportunities I got to do on the trip, it took them a while for them to believe me. I would have had a hard time believing me, too.

I've always been afraid of heights, but I trusted the Operation Purple staff enough to get me past my fears as we repelled and climbed up a mountain that Army Rangers train on. They even pushed me out of a doorway with a more than 30-foot drop under me while I glided down a zip line that was used to train service members to jump out of airplanes.

Looking back, it didn't seem like I was the one doing all those crazy stunts. But now I can say I've rock climbed on a real mountain, and my fear of heights is almost completely gone. And this was all in just one day.

By the next day, we were hiking along the Appalachian Trail--the same trail that's known to house bears, deadly snakes, steep hikes, hidden cliffs and many other potentially-fatal factors. Despite those elements making our mile of steep hiking seem even longer, we reached the top and saw a sight that very few get to see: a sunrise and sunset from atop Silers Bald, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

After that night on the mountain, we climbed down and went tubing down a river filled with bunches of little rapids and sharp rocks. I admit I did lose my tube for a few moments and went underwater once or twice, but that wasn't the worst thing that happened. I decided to follow some other campers to what turned out to be a waterfall!

It looked like fun, and when I was at the top, I grabbed a rock. But as I tried to pull myself up, I slipped... and down the waterfall I went. I seriously think I gave almost everyone (including me) a heart attack, but I came out OK and earned a nickname that had nothing to do with my brothers: Freefall.

Our next adventure took us white-water rafting, and I lost count of how many times I thought I was about to fall out of the boat. And the way our guide kept reminding us which way we should swim if we fell out made me think I was about to take a little dip in the water again.

We then settled on land and went hiking again. This hike wasn't that bad, but when we got "lost," I really wanted to hurt someone. But it actually helped me make friends with people I barely talked to the entire camp, so the blisters on my feet from the trip were so worth it.

Finally, we embarked on "the mission," and I have to say 'bravo' to the people who thought it up. Our mountain hike was the most fun part, but that was because when my group got lost from the trail, I went on ahead. I climbed over some big rocks and found a way back while other teams took an easier way down. I also thought it was really funny to see another team send everyone they passed in the wrong direction down the trail that led everyone miles away.

The navigation part of the hike was ridiculous, but if it wasn't for my hawk eyes, my team would have been hopelessly lost. I had so much of an adrenaline rush that none of my soreness and bruises really affected me. We ended the day sitting around a fire and eating our sandwiches. Honestly, I would have eaten cow eyes--I was that hungry that night.

At the beginning, they gave us journals to write everything we did down. While I tried to remember most of what we did, I realized that I might never see most of those people again. I tried not to think about that too much because I knew I would miss everyone like crazy as soon as I got home. It wasn't just a couple of people who made this year's camp as great as it was - it was everyone.

This wasn't just one of the best camps I have ever been on, but perhaps the best one I will ever go on because I found out what it was like to do something amazing. I changed, and I have the Operation Purple staff and campers to thank for bringing me out of my shell and getting me to try out weird and exciting new things that most people never have the chance to do in their lives at all.

And as a result, I'm glad to now be a part of the Operation Purple family.