Posted by: Chris | May 17, 2011

I Was an Army Brat, and I’m Okay!

This past week I have been told (yes, told!) that my childhood was very stressful because my father was an Army officer. Seriously, I did not start out a conversation stating I was an Army brat, one was just a chat about a plant at a garden sale and I was asked if I had grown up where it grew wild, and I had to explain that I grew up in lots of places. Then it was a chat about high schools with the woman cutting my daughter’s hair when I was asked where I went to high school (I went to two). That is when I was told that I have been damaged by moving around every couple of years, attending several schools and having my father leave for a year at a time. Twice. Sigh.

I was a bit confused why this “revelation” was being relayed to me until I discovered that a bit a week ago there was a Military Spouse Day, and it was on NPR. It seems the lady at the plant sale only heard the bad parts of the story, and missed the bits about the support systems.

What obviously makes it worse is that I am from a multi-generation military family. My grandfather was in the Washington National Guard (the state, not the capital of the USA) who became a full time Army officer during and after WWII, and my brother had a ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship and then a twenty year stint in the Army after graduating from college. When I was in a final year of engineering college I had a very uncomfortable moment after a Christmas dinner trying to explain to a retired Colonel (my grandfather), a retired Lt. Colonel (my father) and an active duty Captain (my brother) why I was not going to sign up for officer training in any military service. Yikes! Though I do confess to eating pizza provided by the Air Force after a tour of an AWACS plane as they tried to recruit engineers whose education they did not have to pay for (I did try for a NROTC scholarship, but missed out as only 15 out of over 10000 were given to females that year).

Really, I’m okay. That was the life I was born into shortly after my father completed Officer Training School after being a non-commissioned officer for almost a decade. I grew up knowing we would move every so often (one time just after a couple of months), that most of our furniture was from the quartermaster, most of the houses in the neighborhood looked alike (and had your dad’s name on a sign in front), and behind one babysitter’s house there were regular “parades” of soldiers doing marching drills (with chants!). Changing schools was not that big a problem because it happened to just about every other kid in school. More than once I ran into someone from an earlier grade not only in a different school, but in a different country!

By the time I started college I had done car trips across the USA coast to coast at least a couple of times, up and down on both I-5 and I-35 half a dozen times, and one long road trip from Panama to Texas. The lasting impression from that experience is that I pack very light, really really hate moving, am comfortable in new places and I am pretty good at geography.

My father being away was also a fact of life. My mother handled it by being resourceful, and keeping her sanity by working as a secretary on base. Getting childcare was an issue for her at every duty station. In Pacific Grove, CA (when my dad was in Vietnam) we started out with one young babysitter, but later she settled on the mom of kids our age who lived across the street. When we moved to Ft. Ord there were three different babysitters, all of them German wives of non-commissioned soldiers. It seems the changes were because they had to move, which is how we ended up in the on base childcare center as she looked for the next sitter (which, unlike one caller to the NPR program, actually went into the night, since I do remember going to sleep there more than once).

I grew up in the most integrated neighborhoods in the country. The Army was integrated long before most of this country. Many of us who attended schools on base or in the neighboring towns did not understand why this was an issue in the 1970s (we had no clue that some towns had unwritten rules on who could live where). In the discussion with my daughter’s hair stylist she did mention that her stepson was happy to go to the high school next to the military base where his stepfather was assigned because there were more brown kids just like him! It was not a hardship to be the “new kid” in class when you were one of many. (The issue of his stepfather and alcohol was another issue, which is unfortunately common… and another research topic).

The worst year of my life was when my father rented a house in Missouri when he attended the Command and General Staff College because there was no housing in or near Ft. Leavenworth, KS. It was a fairly small town and I was bullied for being different. Perhaps I should thank the insular attitude of those kids for making me strong enough to endure the rampant sexism when I majored in engineering, but I won’t. For the sake of all the kids whose parents move around, not just for children whose parents serve but for other reasons, please teach your children to be nice, accepting and willing to learn that there is more beyond your own neighborhood. Moving and being the “new kid” doesn’t always make the child stronger.

One of the reasons my siblings and I did okay is because there are actual support systems. Support systems that often don’t exist in civilian life. Things like medical and dental care (though my dad had to pay for the orthodontia), housing allowances and other programs. My brother told me that losing these things made the transition to civilian life difficult for his family (along with his kids being the only new kids in the school).

Another reason was that our parents were both full adults with at least some college education before they were married. Many issues with military life occur to new recruits right out of high school. They see this as a way to get ahead, but have never been away from home. Some get married very young, I met young women in my last year of high school who were actually married to young soldiers. These soldiers are not paid much, and certainly not enough to support a family (the commissary does accept food stamps). These were the ones my brother had to deal with when he was a company commander; he was in the Signal Corps with a degree in electrical engineering, not psychology. He did his best. In recent years this has been less of an issue due to higher minimum requirements for recruits.

I grew up in an interesting culture (yes, I know it is a wiki article, but it has references to real scientific studies!). Our culture has been the subject of several studies. From stress on children (and there are many, and yes, I had war nightmares as a child), to educational achievement (okay, it won’t allow direct links, just do a left button menu select, cut and paste to another browser).

Our father was a linguist with specialties in Asia and Latin America. So we lived in Panama and Venezuela, and he was deployed without us in Korea and Vietnam. We grew up learning how to use chopsticks, a willingness to eat interesting food, and how to appreciate other cultures. We also learned not to repeat some of the things our father yelled at us, because we did not know what they were and you could never be sure if a bystander spoke Korean, German or Russian.

The main influence of being a military brat is that my siblings and I are very good tourists. We don’t have expectations, and are willing to learn. While my sisters and I preferred to settle down to actual homes and never move more than once a decade, our brother is another story.

He graduated from the fourth high school he attended while overseas in Venezuela. Because of ROTC he left college as a Lieutenant in the Army. My brother served twenty years in the Army with multiple tours of Europe. He is the ultimate tourist and used his one month leave time to pack up the kids and travel around wherever they lived. His wife was an Army nurse, who joined to see the world, she shared his sense of adventure. When he retired he bought a house in Colorado, but after a few years got tired of being retired (he was only in his mid-40s). So he joined the State Department, and has been a computer security guy for embassies ever since. They have lived in New Zealand, India and Denmark. Visiting my brother last year meant lots of walking and taking public transportation because he is the ultimate tourist. This is what he loves to do. The Army was one way to see the world, and it opened up another way to see more. The trip to visit him inspired my daughter into focusing her education to international trade.

We are brats. But we are not unique in our experience, there are more like us. There are the kids of the Diplomatic Corps and many businesses. Actually, it was not uncommon to move if your parent worked for certain companies. I was told that some regarded the initials “IBM” as meaning “I’ve Been Moved” (which is how David Sadaris and family ended up in North Carolina). My husband was a Kaiser brat, who got to live in places like Castlegar, BC and Bonneville, ID while his father did mining project engineering. His father died before an expected move to South America from Pennsylvania. We have similar experiences (except for the he had issues with spelling tests between Canada and the USA).

My brother told me almost everyone he has met at the State Department grew up overseas as expat brats, and they are the ones who affect foreign policy for the United States. Which is probably another reason to be nice to kids of moving families if you live in a small town… your actions could affect future foreign trade!

Now for visual aids on how fun it was to be an Army brat, portions of my shot record.  First the front of the old record:

The Military Service

Then here is the inside (left click for full picture, and this only a fraction of my full shot record):

How current is your Yellow Fever Vaccine?

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Responses

  1. My dad worked for an oil company. So my Yellow Fever Vaccine is current and so is my Japanese Encephalitis. I think I went to eleven or twelve different schools, lived in three countries, and dozens of states. We also took advantage of being overseas and traveled all over Europe and Asia. I know that this all made me a better, stronger person as an adult.

  2. It is nice to hear a good news story of someone growing up in a stable military family. I myself am a military brat with a similar experience. I was born in Okinawa, Japan, lived in Germany and six different states growing up. I had to deal with my father being away quite often, but I never realized that there was any other way of life, as all of my friends were in the same situation. I have never been to a civilian doctor or dentist in my life.

    Our family also has a long history of military history, with members serving in the Revolutionary War and Civil War. My father retired with 23 years of service in the Army and within a month of his retirement I had enlisted. I have gone on to complete college and received my commission in 2001.

    I would have to say that I feel my children may have it a little harder than I did. My daughter is six years old and I have only been home for about three years of it. I am now living off post and attending CGSC as your father did and interestingly this is the first time that my daughter has felt different from any of the other children, as she is also attending school in a small non-military town.

    The support structure that you spoke is still very much alive and well. The bond that the children and families form with one another, especially during deployments, is extremely strong. There are many programs that have been instituted for the military child in the past decade, but the strongest is the one that has been there all along and that is the one of shared experience and hardship with their peers.

    In the years that I have been a member of the military community I have seen things change. The Army has been an all volunteer force now for over thirty years. I can see the Army family becoming more insulated from the civilian population. This is a combination of things, but the two that stand out most to me in my experience is that, with the end of the draft, fewer people are exposed to military service. Less than one percent of the population is in the military, even with nearly ten years of persistent conflict. The second is a fact to which you have already alluded to, and that is the military is becoming more of a family profession. I am seeing more and more soldiers coming into the military today that are the third generation or more of their family that have served.

    Thank you again for sharing and I enjoyed reading your post!

    • Thank you, sir, for the kind words. You did seem to answer some questions I did not get from my brother in our email conversation (he is a bit busy getting ready to move from Europe to Central America).

      Good luck to you and your daughter in both of your respective schools. There is a very definite cultural difference between school near military bases (I graduated from Killeen H.S., near Ft. Hood, TX) and those in towns where people are less mobile.

      The area around Ft. Leavenworth is actually quite lovely. I remember it being slightly hilly with creeks, bits of forest and several farms. It is where I started my habit of taking long walks, which I continue to do. Even though as a ten year old dealing with bullies, I did have some very nice times with kids who were more kind and accepting.

      Ft. Leavenworth is also the birthplace of the Buffalo Soldiers, the post Civil War all black part of the segregated Army (and naturally the officers were white). If you ever get down to Ft. Huachuca, AZ check out both of their museums. It was one of the places where the Buffalo soldiers were stationed, and was mostly black up until about WWII. Now I believe that the old movies where the cavalry comes to the rescue were wrong, the soldiers were too pale.

      There is also a little museum on Military Intelligence that is fascinating.

      • Leavenworth is very nice, I am actually living out in the county on a nice place, where I have had the opportunity to get in some hunting. Thanks for the information. Interestingly enough, I graduated from Ellison High School, I remember well the cross town rivalry between our two schools!

        Bryan

      • I graduated from KHS when it was the only, albeit very crowded, high school there! It was at about triple capacity, and there were over 700 in my graduating class.

        I started kindergarten and graduated from high school in Texas, but none of the years in between. I actually went to kindergarten in three different states (due to the Cuban Missile Crisis).

  3. I think the worst thing people can do is assume someone else is a victim – especially when the other person is not even suffering! But it’s still no good when someone is suffering. Now that I have a kid and have seen some horrible things happen to her friends (one whose mom died and another who has a terminal illness) I am quickly learning that although it’s great to have sympathy and understanding, pity is very hurtful.

    Even for grown-ups. When people find out I have rheumatoid arthritis they usually just say “Sorry to hear that” and then understand if I ask for help somewhere down the line. But one old neighbor decided to make me “her project” and insist on treating me like I was crippled. It drove me crazy and needless to say I asked her to completely leave me alone and not talk to me any more.

    To be honest, I’ve always been a little jealous of military brats because they are so well traveled.

  4. I was what I call a “corporate brat.” My mom worked for a large corporation that moved her around a lot (part of her job was getting the systems in a new branch set up). We only lived in Europe and North America, though, although she was often on trips all over places like Russia and the Middle East.

    I imagine that being a corporate brat is something like being a military brat, except that we didn’t have all the support networks and I was the only new kid in school over and over again. Add to this the fact that my mom was a single parent and you’d think it was a recipe for childhood disaster.

    But you know what? It really wasn’t. I love to travel and I’m really good at it (I never get robbed, I can navigate strange cities like a pro, I pick up some basic conversational proficiency in local languages very quickly…). I make friends easily because I’ve had to do it so many times! I also feel that I’m more informed about world cultures and international issues than most of the people I meet.

    I won’t lie – it was really hard sometimes and I certainly experienced my fair share of xenophobic bullying. There were times when I would have given anything to be able to grow up with my best friends like all my classmates were doing. But I also had a whole lot of fun and it’s made me a much more interesting person as an adult. I wouldn’t trade my childhood in for anything!

    • Thank you for commenting on the corporate brats, which how my husband grew up. It does sound very similar to the military brat life.

      I can imagine it was hard to change schools all the time. Did you go to international schools in Europe? I once worked with someone who whose father’s engineering/manufacturing company sent them to Germany for a couple of years. The school she went to was part of an American military base. She was a bit freaked to young men in uniform serving up lunch, and some of the other bits of the military brat culture.

      • No, I always went to local schools(mostly public, but I did go to a Catholic private school for about a year).

        The language issue was only a bit of a problem because we started off in a French-speaking country and then went to English-speaking countries. My parents are both American, so my verbal adjustment went well. The problem was that I had never been taught to write in English. Because I spoke English so well, my inability to spell anything was not given much understanding.

        The other major issue was with curriculum differences. For example, I moved from one school where we had yet to learn how to do long division, and into a school where they had already covered it. As a result, I’ve never been formally taught long division! These gaps weren’t terrible in most subjects, but I’d say that my math really suffered.

      • Wow, you were in total immersion mode. I am in awe, because I don’t know if I could have survived that!

        I can see where the written aspects would throw you off. My husband mostly traveled between Canada and the USA, so he had issues with spelling conventions (and pronouncing certain words like “decal”).

        I know all to well the differences in math curriculum. I essentially repeated my 3rd grade math when I was in 4th grade, and then had to catch-up in 5th grade. Oddly enough, my younger son had the same kind of situation, only it was self inflicted. He wanted to advance up in the high school math so he could take both the “AB” and “BC” parts of AP Calculus. He took a math class at the community college between 9th and 10th grade (a quarter of community college equals a year of high school), which meant he missed a bit of geometry.


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