A Childhood in the Military or What Makes Military Brats Different
Military and Civilian Worlds
The career military is a separate place from what military people refer to as "the civilian world." My father and his four brothers were part of that military world, almost from the day they were born. It is a world I too was born into and grew up in.
The sons of a Norwegian immigrant who joined the American Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1880, and rose to be a commissioned officer during the Spanish American War, the five Olsen brothers all went to Annapolis and went on to have distinguished Naval careers. Their father loved his adopted country and the American Navy so much that sending all five boys to The United States Naval Academy became his life's ambition and the achievement of this goal his proudest moment. How he managed to get congressional appointments for all five of them I will never know, but he did. My Uncle Clarence even got a Presidential appointment.
My mid-western mother married into the military life (not an easy thing) and I grew up in it. I was an only child. Since we moved every two years or so, I went to nine different schools before I graduated from high school. In fact I went to three different high schools in four years. My four years as a university undergraduate, were the most I spent in any one school in my life.
In spite of the fact that my father had four brothers in the Navy,and I, therefore,had numerous cousins who were also military brats, we didn't really get to know each other growing up because we were always scattered all over the country at different duty stations. There were no family reunions and meetings were rare, being confined to weddings and funerals. My parents relied on occasional phone calls and annual Christmas letters to keep family bonds intact. I do remember small gifts under the Christmas tree every year for me from cousins I knew only by name, and I also remember being required to send each one of them a thank you note after the holiday was over, but for the most part, the Navy was my family and the other military brats (or Navy Juniors as we were required to call ourselves) were my quasi siblings.
Wherever we went there was a base and special activities for us Navy kids. In every new school, I always encountered at least a few kids I had known at some previous duty station. We knew each other, stuck together and tended to help each other out. We all knew that we would leave the school we were in and probably not see the friends we made there ever again-- but we knew that we were stuck with each other and that we would doubtless encounter each other again in some other corner of the world.
What Makes A Military Brat Different
Moving every two years and going to nine different schools before graduating from high school is not unique to kids growing up in the military. The children of traveling salesmen, corporate executives,diplomats and journalists move around as much or more than kids whose parents are in the military, but the military childhood has a certain regimentation and rigidity to it that sets it apart. It is based on battle and the fact that while salesmen or diplomats can get into difficulties, people in the military are dealing with life and death on a daily basis.
The career military exists in order to make war. War is the product, and the people of the military go to work to learn how to annihilate the enemy. This means that Daddy (and these days Mommy too, if she is in the military) is trained to kill or be killed and following from that fact is the underlying, never mentioned idea that when the military parent goes to work in the morning (or goes off in a ship for six months or practices landing a jet plane on the deck of a pitching and rolling aircraft carrier) he or she just might not come home that night. I have an aunt and a cousin who both lost Naval aviator husbands to " training accidents" in peacetime.
The tension that comes along with being attached to the military is not something that is often mentioned, but it is always there. Military spouses and children ( or as we were called in my day, " dependents" live with that reality every moment of every day.
The reality is there because every branch of the military is at its root a war machine that exists to defend the nation. Thus discipline is key and the chain of command is primal. Nobody is sitting around examining the philosophical underpinnings of a command decision in the heat of battle. The General gives the order and the Corporal obeys it. That's the way it has to be if the army is to be efficient. The only possible answer to someone in authority is " yes sir"
Thus growing up in a military family means growing up in an authoritarian atmosphere. It means learning stoicism and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve. It means putting your personal needs after the needs of the "unit" It means a lifestyle that requires much in the way of personal sacrifice and does not encourage intellectual curiosity or too much introspection. There are no nuances or intellectual shades of grey in the military. Things are good or bad; black or white. People are enemies or friends-- us or them-- military or civilian. Shades of grey cannot exist if the fighting unit is to perform at optimum efficiency and if orders are to be obeyed instantly in combat, without question. Everything is attuned to this reality and every member of a military family, down to the family dog is expected to do their part.
A Childhood in the MIlitary Casts A Long Shadow
I have lived most of my adult life in the " civilian world" but still, my childhood in the military has cast a long shadow on my personality and life decisions. Mary Edwards Wertsch whose groundbreaking, 1991 book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, is the definitive work on the subject is the official biographer of the military brat. I only came upon her work recently and her book gave me lots of food for thought. So many of the miitary brat characteristics she talks about are ingrained in me that I could barely believe it.
For starters, I always dread the innocuous question " where are you from?" because I don't have a simple answer. I moved around so much as a kid that to answer truthfully requires a detailed explanation( which nobody really wants) and just picking one of the places I lived or saying something neutral like" everywhere and nowhere" feels evasive.It turns out all us military brats feel that way.
Then, there is the sense of being open to different cultures and alternative ways of doing things along with the feeling of always being an outsider. I used to say that I am someone who could find herself in a Yurt in outer Mongolia and within ten minutes I would be seated cross legged on the ground drinking yak's milk with the Mongolians and they would be saying:"hey-- she's just like us" but of course, both they and I would know that I am not and never will be an actual Mongolian.
Then, there is the tendency to think of all relationships as temporary and to have difficulty making lasting commitments plus a desire for self sacrifice and a certain naive idealism concerning the rewards that self sacrifice will bring.
And last but not least, there is the fact that to this day, when I set foot on a military base anywhere in the world, those grey buildings, barracks and guardhouses make me feel like I have come home.
Reading Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, was a kind of homecoming in itself. I never realized that I belonged to a bona-fide subculture or that military brats from anywhere are my tribe It gave me a sense of real belonging and a lot of food for thought and the next time someone asks me where I am from, I know what I am going to say. I will just say " I am a military brat, and that will explain everything.
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This Hub was last updated on June 17, 2012
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