Saturday, 2:15 PM
Kyle Linatopi, 11, of Lynn, tries out goggles and
a helmet, gear his dad, David, might be wearing in Iraq.
By Anna Badkhen, Globe Staff
READING -- Sporting a Kevlar helmet, gray military fatigues, and some camouflage face paint, Kyle Linatopi, 11, slumped in a plastic chair under a batch of red, white, and blue balloons, swallowed the last piece of pepperoni pizza, and announced, to no one in particular:
"My back hurts."
No surprise there. It's not every Saturday that Linatopi, of Lynn, spends the morning doing push-ups, sit-ups, and lifting a 40-pound backpack, replicating the load that his stepfather, Massachusetts National Guard Staff Sergeant David Hrubes, had to carry when he deployed to Iraq last summer.
But today, Linatopi and about 30 other children whose relatives are serving in Iraq with the 972d Military Police Company gathered in a large gym at the company's base at Camp Curtis Guild to see what their loved ones go through when they enlist in the National Guard.
"It's a hard time for [the children], so anything to keep their minds off of it -- but at the same time on it in a good way -- is great," said Gina Ventullo of Salem, N.H., who helped organize the event.
With at least six months until the end of the company’s deployment, soldiers’ families are constantly looking for activities to keep the children entertained, said Ventullo, who has five children and whose husband, Robert, is serving in Iraq.
"Get them through this deployment is what they need," she said.
Today, guard members covered the children’s faces in military-issue camouflage paint and handed out goody bags filled with toy binoculars, plastic canteens, stickers, and military-themed temporary tattoos. On a couple of mats on the floor, two soldiers helped the children take turns doing push-ups and sit-ups. Some children vigorously explored one Humvee, climbing in through the doors and crawling out of the hatch, and another Humvee, painted red, white, and blue, with the movie "Transformers" playing on a monitor set into the vehicle’s open hatch.
At a table laden with military ready-to-eat meals, a grandfather explained to a 2-year-old girl: "When your dad’s in the desert and he needs something to eat, he opens one of those."
But Rebecca Reese, 12, of Chelmsford, stepdaughter of deployed Master Sergeant Chris Pugh, made a face when Sergeant David Lewis offered her a spoonful of beef stew from a brown plastic bag.
"What is it?" Reese said, backing away from the table in mock horror. She and her friend, Lexie Hebert, 12, of Lowell, wore smears of dark green face paint under their eyes.
Having their faces covered "felt a little weird," explained Hebert, whose cousin, Sergeant Kevin Gerard, is deployed.
Next to them, Mikhaela Gillman, 10, whose father, Sergeant Brian Gillman of Fitchburg, is in Iraq, was trying to lift the 40-pound backpack off the floor, with little success. She went over to the mats and did another set of sit-ups instead -- her third of the morning.
"She just keeps coming back for more," Private Christopher Egan said in disbelief.
"That’s what happens when your mommy and daddy are both soldiers," joked Gillman’s mother, Gina, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
Some children chose quieter activities. Tyler Carmody, 5, enjoyed decorating a large yellow ribbon made from cardboard. "Dad, I love you. Tyler C.," wrote the boy, before coloring the ribbon blue.
"Six months done, six months to go," said his mother, Alyssa. "We’re praying for daddy and can’t wait to play with him again."
With "every single toy that I have," elaborated Tyler, who wore around his neck a dog tag his father, Specialist Jason Carmody of Saugus, gave him before he left. The dog tag read: "Tyler J. Carmody, US Army Son. Thinking of you. Love you. Dad."
A few paces away, children wrote letters to their deployed relatives and dropped them into a brightly painted mailbox. Kyle Linatopi wrote one pretty much as soon as he set foot at Camp Curtis Guild. "I wrote that 'Hi, dad, I did 28 push-ups; sit-ups not so good. I need to work on my sit-ups. We miss you.'"
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