When he was finally released in July 2004, the family celebrated with a party, but it soon became clear that life was going to be a lot different for a while. "Tracy was angry and frustrated, which is common with veterans," says Elizabeth, who experienced the same behavior with her dad, a Vietnam vet. Tracy had been planning to start a business when he was deployed, and now those plans were derailed. His limited vision left him unable to drive, and he struggled with everyday tasks, like opening jars. He'd fly off the handle over little things. The boys began to founder too. Like many military children, they suffered nightmares, stomachaches, headaches and panic attacks. Their grades went down, and they began acting out in school.
During Tracy's rages, Elizabeth would take Austin and Hunter into another room, explain that he wasn't mad at them and encourage the boys to brainstorm more constructive ways to express anger. She felt fortunate to have the necessary training and expertise to help. But she worried about the hundreds of thousands of other military children experiencing similar ordeals at home. While there were support options for service members, little was available for their offspring. "We forget that kids serve too," says Elizabeth. "They may not be on the battlefield, but they make an enormous sacrifice for their country. Children need help coping with their emotions, and they need to know that other kids are going through this also. I wondered if there was a way I could help them as well."
The answer came in December 2004. The Reeps were attending the annual Road to Recovery Conference in Orlando sponsored by the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes (CSAH), an organization that provides services for wounded vets and their families. "There were workshops for the grown-ups but nothing specifically for the kids," says Elizabeth. "I figured I could complain or be part of the solution." So she approached the man in charge, told him of her background and offered to develop a youth program for the following year. He promised to consider it if she put together an outline and a budget.
Elizabeth turned to friend and child counselor Sarah Bravo, 32, to design a curriculum. Through crafts, games and small group activities, they'd teach kids of injured military members how to express and manage their feelings. Equally important, they'd offer a chance for kids to bond with peers in similar circumstances. The women named their program Camp C.O.P.E., which stands for Courage, Optimism, Patience and Encouragement. Their proposal was approved, and they were given $1,600 to make it a reality.
Camp C.O.P.E. launched at the 2005 Road to Recovery Conference. Eighty-five kids showed up, including Hunter and Austin. Attendees were split into age-appropriate groups, led by Elizabeth, Sarah and volunteer counselors. Those who came in grumbling and skeptical were quickly drawn in by the fun and games. The Introduce Yourself session featured contests to see which family had moved the most places. Kids blew off steam through yoga-type exercises. In small groups, counselors instructed them to smash flowerpots with hammers to symbolize families shattered by war, write on the broken pieces (how they felt on the inside and a wish for the future on the outside), then glue them back together to represent the resilience of military families.