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New Program Honors Military Kids, Friends With Fun

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After moving 10 times with her father, Army Master Sgt. John Vick, Kelsie knows as well as anyone the sacrifices military children make. And, like many military kids, she takes it in stride. "I liked it," she said, of the military lifestyle. 

Still, Kelsie admits her dad's two war deployments were stressful. "I just tried to ignore it and not think about it," she said. 

But today, any thoughts of long separations, frequent moves and parents in war zones took a back seat, as Kelsie and three of her friends joined her family and hundreds of other military families at Nationals Stadium here for the Washington Nationals' Independence Day baseball game against the New York Mets. 

The game marked the kick-off of the USO's "Me and a Friend" program, which provides free tickets to major league sporting events, theater performances, museums and other venues for military children and their friends. 

Many major and minor league sports teams recognize servicemembers, USO Vice President Kevin Wensing said, and the "Me and a Friend" program builds on that by bringing the focus to military children. 

"We thought it would be nice if some of the attention were on the kids and their sacrifices, too," he said. 

Nationals President Stan Kasten said he was happy to donate 100 tickets to the program, and that he plans to donate more in the future and encourage other teams to do the same. "When you think about kids being separated from their parents in their service to the country, we can't do enough for them," he said. 

The 100 tickets were among 5,000 the Nationals donated to military members and their families for three home games over the July Fourth weekend, Kasten said. He added that the "Me and a Friend" program will complement the team's other military-related outreach efforts, including honoring military families during the third inning of every game and having players visit wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. 

"We have a longstanding relationship with the military, and we take very seriously our role in the national pastime in the nation's capital," he said. 

And, even though the Mets beat the Nats, Kelsie and her friends, all of whom graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., last month, were just happy to have the day out together. 

Kelsie's friend, Josh Braden, said he thinks the program will be a hit, especially with teenage military children. 

"A lot of times, teens just can't find anything to do," he said. "The focus is just on clubs and stuff. So this is a good thing to do to keep kids out of trouble." 

Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, began developing the program with the USO after a chance meeting with the children of a servicemember who attended a military family conference with their mother last year. As Wilson spoke with the children, he said, the 11-year-old girl told him she would be OK throughout her father's deployment to Afghanistan, but she worried about her brother. The 9-year-old was coming home from school every day announcing a new best friend. 

"There is a huge truth in that," Wilson said. "What all kids want is a sense of normalcy, a sense of belonging, and of being able to bond with other kids." 

The program creates that by offering free tickets for military children to attend events of their choosing with a friend. The program sponsors plan to expand it enough in the coming months that military families anywhere in the United States can call or log onto the USO website, or that of their closest installation, and find a selection of events to attend. 

"What I wanted was for kids to be able to go online and say, 'What do you have for me and a friend?'" Wilson said. 

Tina Durkin, a former Air Force reservist whose husband, Matthew, is on his way to deploy to Afghanistan with the Air Force, said she "lucked into" the "Me and a Friend" tickets to the Nationals game after contacting the morale, welfare and recreation office at Fort Myer, Va., for tickets to the King's Dominion amusement park. She said she was happy to get tickets to both events, and brought her daughter, Evelyn, 6, and their friend, John Lytle, to the ballgame. 

"I think this is just great," said Durkin, a Cleveland native, who is dealing with deployment for the first time. "It helps me so I don't feel so alone in this big city, not knowing what to do or where to go." 

Some military family members who attended the game said they were glad to learn of the program, even if they didn't take part in it today. Brenda Schwegel was there with her Navy son and his family, and her husband, who retired from the Army in 1995. 

"It's amazing to see how much more support there is for the military now than there was before," she said. "This is really wonderful, and I just hope they keep it going." 
 

*Biographies:* 
Douglas B. Wilson  [ http://www.defense.gov/bios/biographydetail.aspx?biographyid=244 ] 

*Related Sites:* 
USO of Metropolitan Washington  [ http://www.usometro.org/page.php?p=29 ]