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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — During his father’s first one-year deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, Nate Kunkel would wake terrified, convinced by his nightmares that his father had been killed by a sniper. During the second deployment in 2012, Nate told his mother he was thinking of killing himself.

That confession came at a moment his parents were exchanging instant messages across the miles from Afghanistan to Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs. At first, Sherri Kunkel did not want to tell her husband what their son, then 12, had said. Henry Kunkel could sense something was wrong, and he insisted. On reading his son was having suicidal thoughts, he tapped out:

"Take him to the ER. I’m coming home."

Henry Kunkel, a 44-year-old infantry line medic, was able to end his deployment early and get home in a few days. Nate, an engaging, articulate young man with the hairstyle of a boy band singer, began therapy.

Throughout that crisis and long after Henry Kunkel’s homecoming, the family had another adult to lean on: Nate’s Big Brother.

But Craig Suderman is not your usual Big Brother volunteer. The Kunkels are part of the organization’s military mentoring program, which pairs adults who have military experience with children whose parents serve. Sometimes, the families have lost a father or mother in the line of duty.

Using a model that the organization has been developing for more than a century, the mentors, known as Bigs, aren’t replacement parents. That point is particularly important for military families, said Henry Kunkel, who uses words like "awkward" and "weird" to describe his initial reaction when, before his first deployment, his wife suggested they turn to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"The Army is dominated by alpha males," he said. Big Brothers Big Sisters has the huge task of making a soldier understand that "you've got something that can alleviate stress for three or four hours week, not some guy who want to be the parent one day a week."

The Kunkels were the first family matched under a military mentoring program that the Colorado Springs office of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America started in 2009.

Big Brothers Big Sisters branches in California and elsewhere have been reaching out to the military since the early 2000s, and a national campaign began in 2007 to recruit more mentors from the veteran and active duty community. In 2011-2012, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Department of Defense, Big Brothers Big Sisters set aside $3 million for a national program targeting the sons and daughters of men and women in all branches of the service and active duty National Guard and Reserve members.

Today, with federal and other funding, that program serves more than 800 children between the ages of 9 and 17 in two dozen locations across the United States.

Rodney Davis, national director of military mentoring for Big Brothers Big Sisters, said: "We’re not there to replace the parent. We want to reinforce the relationship between the child and the parent and the child and the community."

Sherri Kunkel, 47, is not sure how she heard about the Colorado Springs military mentoring program. But when she did, she knew it could be helpful when she would be home alone with Nate and his two older brothers, whom she home-schooled, while her husband was in Afghanistan.

"I am the only female in a house full of men," she said. "I knew they were going to drive me crazy. And I thought I might drive them crazy, too."

She also liked the idea that the mentoring relationship would continue and have a chance to grow stronger when her husband was home.

"It's the Army. Even though they’re home, it’s the Army," Sherri Kunkel said, referring to periodic training missions that keep her husband away from home when he’s not deployed, and his long working hours.

"When he can be there, he’s there," she said of her husband. Having a Big Brother for the other times "just takes some of the weight off him."

Henry Kunkel returned from war with PTSD, and his wife needed to spend more time with him. That was easier because a Big Brother had time for Nate. Henry Kunkel went from seeing the program as weird to seeing that it could work.

"You’ve done an outstanding job," he said, turning to Suderman, a 42-year-old nurse anesthesiologist who has been Nate’s mentor for two years.

The first mentor the Kunkel family was matched with was a neighbor from Fort Carson. It was a good fit until the soldier, who had been wounded in Iraq, was medically discharged.

Nate said having a Big who understands Army culture can be an advantage. But he added that "if they deploy and you have a strong relationship with them, you worry about them as well."

Davis, of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said some military families request a Big with military experience — particularly families who have lost a father or mother in the line of duty.

"We want to recruit more active duty servicemembers and veterans to serve as Bigs," said Davis, a retired Army colonel. "They understand the military community. They’re devoted to service. They’re excellent role models."

In the end, Big Brothers Big Sisters leaves the choice of mentor, whether military or civilian, to the families after a careful matching process that includes interviews and opportunities for the prospective mentee — known as a Little — to get to know a prospective Big.

Suderman, Nate’s Big, straddles the two worlds. He is a civilian, but works part time at Fort Carson’s Evans Army Community Hospital.

He moved to Colorado Springs nine years ago, and said he had been looking for a way to serve the community. He had worked with young people through a church, but the emphasis on group activities didn’t click. Big Brothers Big Sisters, which nurtures one-on-one friendships, appealed to him.

"I’m the kind of person who has a few good friends for a long time," Suderman said.

When the mentor needs mentoring, Suderman turns to Natalie Mathis, a program specialist at the Colorado Springs office of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Danielle Summerville, Mathis’ boss.

Mathis and Summerville said reaching out to the military has meant learning about everything from the security procedure at Fort Carson’s gates to what family support organizations are available for military families. Summerville brought in a military counselor to talk to her staff about the concerns they might hear from military kids who have seen flags flying at half-staff and know what it means when an officer accompanied by a chaplain approaches a neighbor’s door.

Nate treats Suderman like another elder sibling — but jokes that his Big is nicer than his blood brothers. Suderman plays basketball and football with Nate and takes him on field trips into the mountains. The Kunkels say Suderman has never missed one of his weekly Thursday dates with Nate, providing stability through difficult years. And Suderman has helped Nate, who sometimes has more energy than he knows how to channel, explore some sedentary activities, including chess.

"When he really applies himself, he can beat me. He beats me quite often," Suderman said. "He’s gained confidence in what he can do."

Suderman said he also has benefited, learning to relax when he’s with Nate.

"He acts more like an adult, and I act more like a kid," he said.

This year, the Colorado Springs program is serving 87 kids. Nate, meanwhile, is moving with his family to Texas.

What will happen to the extended family?

Sherri Kunkel, a devotee of social media, was stunned that Suderman doesn’t have a Facebook page. She wants him to sign up so he and Nate can keep in touch.

Suderman demurred, but promised: "We’ll text."


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