We are not defined by ethnicity,
religion, geography, or race.
You cannot spot us in a crowd.
But we, the children of warriors,
have been shaped by a culture so powerful
we are forever different, forever proud,
and forever linked to one another.
-Mary Edwards Wertsch, Reflections on an Invisible Nation
Traveling home by plane from college for the holidays my seatmate, a man a bit older than me suggested that he could tell what part of the country I was from just by having a conversation with him. I smiled and took him up on his challenge. Throughout the conversation he would pepper me with names of Midwestern states, then southern. By the end of the hour long flight he gave up exasperated. When I told him I was raised in the military and “from all over” he laughed out loud. Perhaps the reason he kept presuming it was a Midwestern accent is because that was where I was living at the time. In order to fit in quickly to new cultures military brats will adapt their speech to mimic the local inflections and vocabulary.
So how many brats are there?
In the United States today there are approximately 700,000 children ages six to eighteen classified as military youth. The truth is that no one really knows which is surprising for a country obsessed with polls and statistics. No one has kept a running count of the number of children raised in the U.S. military. The Department of Defense (DoD) school system approximates that since 1946 it has educated four million brats overseas or about 20-30% of the total brat population. One guesstimate would be a total of at least 12-20 million brats. ‘This wouldn’t include the children of National Guard, embassy and Foreign Service personnel, DoD civilian employees, missionary families and mobile corporate families,’ notes Jump Cut journalist George T. Marshall, ‘ – all of who share more in common with military brats than with their fellow citizens.’
Where are all these military brats?
What do Christina Aguilera, LeVar Burton,and Norman H. Schwarzkopf have in common with me? We’re all military brats. It’s impossible to tell just by looking. We’re every race, every age, and every belief. We’re the world over. We’re spouses, parents, grandchildren, co-workers, and neighbors. Because brats are not simple to identify, discovering this “lost American tribe” as author Pat Conroy puts it, can be difficult, but not impossible. Statistics point out that roughly 60% of all military brats live in ten states: Texas, California, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Maryland, Arizona, and Washington.
So just who are these brats?
An army brat once said to me,
"Yeah, we moved a lot; Dad would agree.
I loved sixth grade in Maine—
Even seventh in Spain—
But it's hard to keep friends you don't see.
Brats are children of military personnel. We come in several flavors, army, air force, navy and marines to name a few. I’m an Air Force brat. Some may think the term is a pejorative but most of us actually like the moniker. “Webster defines "brat" as "a child, especially an impudent, unruly child; scornful or playful term." says Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress." But that definition doesn't define "military brats." Wertsch adds that “military brats have such values as idealism; antiracism; loyalty; patriotism and honesty. We look upon it as an affectionate term with humor built into it. It connotes a kind of spunkiness, and spunkiness is what's going to get you through…don't be afraid to use the term 'military brat.' It has various elements of truth in it, about our experiences, and we should be proud of it."
There’s no telling when the term arose in the military. A good guess might be that it was handed down from the British military of the 18th century since they were the first to allow a soldier's family to accompany him, and now her, to their post. During the American Civil War the only brats around were those that belonged to the officers because enlisted men were not allowed to marry. Military brat remains an informal description for children with parents who are serving or have served full time in a branch of the armed forces. With the advent of the internet and online communities the phrase is being taken up globally as well. Primarily it means that our childhood is different in significant ways. One hallmark of military brats is that they are regularly deemed to be more disciplined than their civilian peers. Other more tangible indicators are that we move frequently as children. The average military family moves every 2-1/2 years, according to the DoD. Moving was often a thrill: the whole process of packing everything up, getting in the car with my parents and traveling across country for days. We attend a lot of different schools, with little time for setting up strong roots in a community. We are exposed to military discipline and authority from infancy and are adept in dealing with institutional authority and occasionally leads to a few rising up against it. We deal well with long-distance relationships and we also have a high cross-cultural understanding. We think that strangers are just friends waiting to happen!
Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a more universal expression for this experience which is defined as a, “person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The third culture kid builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the third culture kid's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of the same background." (Pollock & van Reken, 2001, p. 19)
When I first understood the term Third Culture Kid there was such an indescribable sense of identity. I was no longer on a fence between military and civilian life. Finally there was a culture of my own to belong to.
What kind of culture do brats come from?
Every day when I wake up in the morning and go to school, it gives me great honor to know that I am going to school with not just ordinary kids, but unique kids. They may look like the average schoolgirl or schoolboy, but there is something special about them - they are military brats.
Some people may think military brats are treated better just because they have a parent in the armed services. This stereotype is incorrect. There are no mints on our pillows.
-Aldrin Muya, a junior at Shoemaker High School outside Fort Hood, Tx.
Military brats often come across as mature for their age. In some ways we are sophisticated and worldly from a young age. We can be hard for some people to figure out. Dad is a career military officer (ret.) from Texas, whose job required his family to move many times to different military bases. One of two children, I changed schools seventeen times in twelve years, and finally graduated from college after attending four years in a row. Woo hoo!
The drawback to moving around so much means that we may not learn some of the harder lessons about dealing with people. Once I heard the “M” word I picked a fight with my best friend because it was easier than saying good bye.” If you have an enemy in one place, you may not have to resolve things because you get transferred away," writes Mary Edwards Wertsch. "You may not know how to be a friend over the long term. That creates an immaturity that underlies that outer layer of sophistication and seeming older than your years." How true.
In the US, most of us are born and raised on federal property. We receive medical care, subsidized food and housing until the day we finish college. The bases are small communities unto themselves. We have our own bowling alleys and churches. We tell time and dates in our own unique way. We stand for the National Anthem before the movies start and pull our cars over and stand with our hands over our hearts for Retreat when the flag is lowered at 1700. When we are required to turn in our military ID card that grants us these rights and privileges, it is a hard moment for many because it means we can no longer go back to the ball fields, movie theatre and other hang outs of our youth. Even if we could who would be there?
We don’t have the all-encompassing home that our parents grew up in. When Dad went home he slept in the same bedroom in the same house where he went to his first day of school and brought home his first girlfriend. When Mom went home the same roof creaked when the sun went down on her as a child and the same friends who knew her were ones that had always known her.
Home for my sister and I was wherever we loaded the dishwasher. Shoe polish, Brasso and JP8 are smells that evoke memories of B52’s just beyond the backyard. When the United States needs a soldier, military brats do their best to best to provide one. Our contribution to the country is small, but so are the brats most of the time, and they give all that they can.
The 2000 census reported that “20 percent of Americans moved within the previous 15 months. Other surveys say half of all Americans move every five years.” That makes today’s brats a lot more like the kids in their schools. This is very heartening to read. There are more children who find home to be a place made by the pure presence of their immediate family. It’s the scent of chicken fried steak bubbling in an iron skillet. Home is eating at the supper table and putting away your own laundry. Home is going to church on Sunday night and our thousand holiday rituals. Home is wherever we are.
Where do all the brats go?
I think being a military brat is one of the strangest and most interesting ways to spend an American childhood. The military brats of America are an invisible, unorganized tribe, a federation of brothers and sisters bound by common experience, by our uniformed fathers, by the movement of families being rotated through the American mainland and to military posts in foreign lands. We are an undiscovered nation living invisibly in the body politic of this country. There are millions of us scattered throughout America, but we have no special markings or passwords to identify each other when we move into a common field of vision. We grew up strangers to ourselves. We passed through our military childhoods unremembered.
-Pat Connery, author of The Great Santini
Frequently, military brats grow up to accept jobs in foreign cultures, several join the military and diplomatic corps. In civilian life many work in the social services or caring professions like medicine and education. All in all, a good number of us choose to continue to serve our respective countries in some way.
Wertch notes that in her interviews many brats still do not "feel like a civilian, despite the fact that the vast majority had associated almost exclusively with civilians for the whole of their adult lives. In some undefined way they sensed they were still products of the Fortress, still to a degree outsiders in a civilian culture in which they could function with ease but with which they could not wholly identify." One thing all researchers report is that brats as a whole don’t view themselves as civilians. "Out-here" in civilian life, home is still the place where I load the dishwasher. I simply ended up somewhere and coaxed a home out of it. Toss me into just about any social setting and I can make my way very well. People of any class, any background, any line of work, I can strike up a conversation with them and be quite at ease. "The biggest reward brat‘s have is the understanding that our lives have meaning because we serve a meaningful mission. The military is more than a lifestyle, it's a culture with its own norms and values, said Mary Edwards Wertsch. She names it a 'fortress,' with a capital "F," which portrays a togetherness within and a disconnection from civilian life. The military's command for readiness establishes it and its people apart from civilian America, she relates. The author calls the "all-powerful military mission" the "unseen member of the family."
While we were out shopping at the BX Dad was called to picked up an AWOL who had decided to turn himself in and took him to jail. My civillian friend was terribly upset because she thought the valor of turning one’s self in mitigated the circumstances of the crime and he should have been left go to return to work. My sister and I could understand this, but my friend had a really hard time of it. The military is not a democracy. It works on the principle of authority because that's the way things have to be to create order and discipline. Because of the authoritarian lifestyle kids grow up straddling two different worlds. Not only do we manage a militarized way of life we also have to navigate the very wobbly environment of a civilian school.
"The biggest thing overall is that the commonalities of (the military brats) rearing are so powerful," Wertsch said. "It's an identity that supersedes almost all others. It cuts across lines of gender, race and class. It shapes us our entire lives through. You don't stop being a military brat when your parents retire from service life. Retirement is also part of the story." One example she names as the outcome of being raised in the military is that brats carry an attitude that's not just non-racist, but anti- racist. "Military values are the things that separate us most from the civilian world," Wertsch says. "Idealism -- military brats tend to be very idealistic people. We've been raised in an environment where you do things for principle, to support an ideal."
Web Resources for Military Brats
There are multitudes of web sites military brats use to connect with each other -- and outsiders can use for insight into the brat lifestyle. Here are several:
Military Brats Online is available to help us to re-connect with our Military Brats heritage and with friends old and new.
Military Brats Online (external link). Started in 1995 the site is a free resource established to reconnect military brats with each other and their heritage. It hosts a school alumni page. (external link)
Military Brats Registry, (external link). I’ve been a member there for a number of years and have been contacted by a friend of my sister. The site is designed as a way for brats to locate other brats from childhood. Brats are great storytellers and the site hosts articles by brats on aspects of the brat experience as well as links to other sites.
Operation Footlocker, (external link) founded by Wertsch and two other brats in 1996. This is a neat project. There were three footlockers crisscrossing the country up until 2002. Brats can still add memorabilia like significant objects or written memories -- to the footlockers. Their contents will be archived for a future brats museum in Wichita, KS.
TCK World. (external link) The host of Operation Footlocker, the site is for "Third Culture Kids." Has a lot of useful links. Last updated in 2003.
Military Teens on the Move (external link) website hosted by the DoD. Created for teen-agers and provides information on coping with moves, as well as teen advice.
Overseas Brats (external link) Started in 1986 for U.S. citizens wo have attended school overseas. It helps connect overseas high school alumni groups.
Sons and Daughters in Touch (external link) Established to offer connection and support to the children of those who died or remain missing as a result of the war in Vietnam.
Accessed August 23, 2006
Accessed August 23, 2006.
Military Brats Are a Special Breed
Accessed August 23, 2006
The Ups and Downs of Being a 'Military Brat':
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A son drives home a discovery about belonging: Military brats can.
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Youth mouth off in ‘Military Brats’
Accessed August 23, 2006