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Camp Hometown Heroes helps children cope with losing a parent to war

Camp Hometown Heroes
Camp Hometown Heroes 03:04

MILWAUKEE -- Outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there's a kids camp that has all the makings of a typical summer camp, except the kids who come here share one exceptional bond.

Since 9/11, 5,000 kids have lost a parent because of war. And a few years ago, Camp Hometown Heroes started as a way to bring those kids together from across the country.

Camper James House's dad, John, was a Navy medic who died in a helicopter crash in Iraq. That was in 2005, when James was just a month old.

James House CBS News

"Can you explain to me, how do you miss someone that you've never met?" I asked James.

"I miss him because he's my dad. I might not have met him in person, but he's always with me," he said.

Over the years, James wanted to mourn but says he couldn't, really -- partly because his friends at home, while well-intentioned, weren't saying the right things.

"At school when Father's Day passes that's a big deal. And everyone is making little Father's Day cards and I get a little sad. And they say, 'I know how you feel.'"

Dylan Simon writes a message on his balloon before the release. CBS News

But it's not the same.

"[At camp] I get to cry and they can say 'I know how you feel,' and I know they know how I feel. And that's a great feeling."

For many of the kids, camp is their first chance to just let it out. To help in that effort they do a balloon release, where campers write messages to their loved ones.

Dylan Simon lost his dad in 2005. Dylan was a camper for four years, but this year he's back as a counselor.

"My first balloon release was one of the hardest because I had to physically let go of everything that I was holding onto over the years," he said.

Campers wait to release their balloons with messages written to loved ones. CBS News

A lot of kids say the balloon release is the best part of camp -- and, at first, we could not understand why.

"There's nothing you can say to a kid to make them feel better when someone is gone forever," Dylan explained.

Campers hug each other after the balloon release. CBS News

But then something magical happened. The kids started reaching out to one another. Not a word was said because not a word was needed. Proving that sometimes all it takes to let go -- is the right person to hold onto.

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