NEWS | Aug. 8, 2019

14th Annual Youth Summer Camp blasts off in Virginia Beach

By Sgt. Lisa M. Sadler JFHQ Public Affairs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — More than 60 Virginia National Guard youth joined teen and adult volunteers at the Virginia National Guard’s 14th Annual Youth Camp, held July 27 – Aug. 2, 2019, at the State Military Reservation in Virginia Beach.

The Youth Camp provides educational, emotional, social, and community support for the youth and families of the Virginia National Guard. Dependents of current National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are invited to this six day, overnight camp. These campers enjoyed a broad range of educational and recreation activities throughout the week, including visits from Virginia Guard units and local community groups. as well as trips to the Virginia Aquarium, the USS Wisconsin and Nauticus, the National Maritime Center.

Campers worked on teamwork through a day of laser tag fun and representatives from the Winchester-based STARBASE Academy provided the campers with two days of learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts and practicing cohesion through team building. STARBASE is a Department of Defense educational program, sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, where students participate in 25 hours of “hands-on, mind-on” activities in STEM over five days.

“We try to deepen community partnerships by reaching out to the local fire departments to share fire-life safety equipment and with the Red Cross to demonstrate disaster preparedness,” said Joe Duerksen, Lead Child and Youth Coordinator with Virginia National Guard Family Programs.

During camp, each day is assigned a word that drives the theme for the day. This year’s words included communication, relationships, resilience, independence and competency/mastery.

“I’ve also tried to deepen the impact of the camp and its meaning pertaining to National Guard youth,” Duerksen said. “We are to the point now that we have an entire day of mirrored activities dedicated to National Guard actions.”

As a result, Wednesday is known as Hero Day, a day dedicated to familiarizing the campers with their parents’ military obligations. Some of these military-themed events include a flag retirement ceremony, barracks cleaning competitions, learning drill and ceremony, and eating lunch in the field with their peers.

In addition, campers were treated to static displays and equipment demonstrations from various Virginia National Guard units, including helicopters from the 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation, 29th Infantry Division,  and a visit from Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia.

“We close that day out with probably the most meaningful night, the Flag Retirement Ceremony,” Duerksen said.

“Campers are given a flag etiquette class the first day of camp,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Merritt, a camp volunteer from Newport News. “The campers are responsible for the flag during the week, the rising and the lowering of the flag every day, and usually on Wednesday or Thursday evening, we do the flag retirement ceremony.”

Merritt has been a camp volunteer for six years, and has helped with the flag retirement ceremony since he started volunteering. During the ceremony, he explains what each part of the flag stands for, and explains the proper way to retire a flag. Then, each camper receives one of the colors that has been prepared for retirement and they then have the opportunity to lay the piece into the fire.

“This allows us to burn the flag with dignity,” Merritt said. “I’ll read a description of what each color stands for and then the color guard will retire the white stripes first. It’s a very solemn opening to the actual retirement.”

Merritt said that the highlight of his week is the flag retirement ceremony because he gets to witness the impact it has on the campers. “Some of the campers leave in tears, not because they are sad, but because it strikes home for many of them and they sincerely understand what they are experiencing.”

“I believe that this camp provides a unique experience for National Guard youth who do not get a chance to see each other throughout the year,” said Duerksen. “For the most part, it allows the campers to come together and make a real connection through the activities that are being offered. These activities are far more important and impactful than anything we could ever pay for.”

“If you have never had the chance to experience camp, it’s a tremendous honor and experience to be here, but it’s also an experience as a leader you don’t forget, Merritt said. “I’ve watched these kids grow up the past six years and it’s great to be a part of that.”

If you would like more information about the Virginia National Guard Youth Program or would like to volunteer, please contact Joe Duerksen at  or go to

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