"M*A*S*H" aside, military life isn't usually a funny topic. That's exactly why Camp Gratitude held a fundraiser recently at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in the Mall of America. "It's such a serious matter, but everybody likes comedy," founder Bill Hottel said.

He started the nonprofit organization a year ago to provide veteran families with camping experiences to get reacquainted with one another.

"We want to say thank you to everybody," said Hottel, a Vietnam veteran. "We have a tendency as a public to take our freedoms for granted, because that's all we've ever known."

Stephanie VanHeel of Ham Lake attended the camp with her six kids last summer, following her husband's deployment to Iraq. She thought of it as a "vacation" as they swam, jumped on trampolines, kayaked and went to a Twins game. But they also had a chance to meet with a therapist and bond with other military families.

"It gave us a chance to acknowledge what we were going through," she said. "You feel like everything is supposed to be normal, but it's not, and they did it in a fun way."

With her husband due back soon, VanHeel said the kids are "looking forward to having a summer with Dad" -- and plenty of laughter.

Sara Glassman • 612-673-7177