Guard children get a chance to bond during 'Sleeping with the Fishes' event

By Staff Sgt. Mary Junell

KURE BEACH, N.C. - Children of National Guard services members have a unique experience. They are not fully Army or Air Force brats as children of active duty service members call themselves, but they do have to deal with their parents being away for training one weekend a month, annual training in the summer, and other missions or deployments they are called to support. 

A group of North Carolina National Guard children recently had an opportunity to spend time with kids just like them during the Sleeping With the Fishes event March 23, at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. 

The event was sponsored by Kids on Guard, a non-profit organization that supports the North Carolina National Guard Family Programs. 

Twenty-six children spent the night in the aquarium next to one of the large tanks holding fish and small sharks. They learned about reptiles native to N.C. and had an opportunity to pet a yellow rat snake, a turtle, and a baby alligator. 

The children also completed a scavenger hunt and had a behind the scenes look at the aquarium after they woke up the next morning, but more importantly, they had an opportunity to see that they are not alone. 

"It's really important for Guard kids to meet other Guard kids because they're so spread out throughout the state," said Kristi Wagner, an NCNG Child and Youth Program coordinator. "It's really great that they can make that connection. We find that the kids create a bond really quickly."

Wagner said that unlike the children of active duty service members, the children of Guardsmen sometimes find themselves as the only military kid in their school or community.

"They are so spread out across the state that they may not have any other military connection within their schools for support systems where if you were at a post or installation you have all those support systems right there," she said. 

Events like this one have been popular among Guard families. This is the fourth year Kids on Guard has sponsored the event and Wagner said it filled up so fast that they have a second date scheduled for this year.

"I think a lot of them think they are by themselves until they come to a child and youth event they realize 'Oh, there's other people like me' and they understand and they relate," Wagner said. "We run programs for kids all through school-age and up into their teen years. We even have some who have graduated from college and want to come back and volunteer with the youth program because it's made such an impact on them." 

Olivia Wilber, the daughter of Maj. Michael Wilber, commander of the North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Maintenance Operations Flight, has seen her father through multiple military schools, a deployment and several shorter missions all ranging from a week to nine months. 

"It's enjoyable to find out how other kids might also have some struggles, how their parents move away sometimes and it might be hard for them," Olivia said. "It's kind of nice to know that you can interact with other kids who have the same problem as you." 

Olivia's father, whose mission tempo has slowed the last few years, said his daughter commented recently that she thinks it is weird that he has been around so much lately.

He also said that he is thankful that his son and daughter are able to participate in programs like this. 

"You've got other kids at these events that have similar stories that the kids don't get from their school friends," Wilber said. "It helps ease some of the stress of having to be away, knowing that there's a support system back home."