Are you familiar with the term “military brat?” This term generally refers to someone who grew up in a family where the parents served in the armed forces. My father served in the Air Force which makes me a military brat and I say that with pride. Though the word “brat” usually carries a negative connotation in the civilian world, those of us who grew up “on base” know that we belong to a resilient and diverse subculture of individuals bonded by common experience and mutual understanding of what it all means.
Take some time to get to know a military brat and you’re likely to discover that she or he couldn’t pinpoint the city or town where they grew up. That’s because most of us rarely lived in one place for more than a year or two. Childhood friendships seldom carry over into our adult lives since distance and address changes make them difficult to maintain. Furthermore, the nuclear family becomes the centerpiece while the neighbors and friends on the base step in as our extended family. Our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins all commonly lived in other states or in another country.
If your childhood was rooted in one home or you graduated high school with your kindergarten buddies, all of these descriptors may sound unimaginably disheartening. However, for many military brats, these experiences positively shaped the way we fit in our wide world. Here are a few ways that the life of a military brat laid the groundwork for the lessons intended for me to inform my grownup life.
My family moved every summer during my elementary school years.
Surprisingly, my memories don’t bring to mind sadness and struggles with goodbyes. Packing up and watching men load all those boxes onto a moving truck stirred excitement of what was going to be next. The anticipation of a new house, new friends, and new experiences didn’t leave room for feeling down. My friends and I spoke about the different places we lived and where we were moving to next much like adults speak about summer vacation locations. (“We’re moving to Guam!” …“We’re moving, too. We’re going to Germany!”)
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye but we knew two things. First, we understood that change was inevitable and that by embracing it, we can look forward to what new people and places will add to our lives. The uncertainty of change exists only temporarily so fear not. Secondly, a goodbye many times can be a ” see-you-later”. For example, my 2nd grader friend who walked me home from kindergarten everyday in Japan now lives just 15 minutes away from me in California. I also recall that my sister befriended a boy in California while in middle school only to discover that years before they were in the same kindergarten class in Guam. The point? The world is much smaller that we believe. Particularly with the advancements of technology and social media, the vastness of our planet has gotten even smaller from when I was a child.
We had to embrace different cultures to fit in with our new surroundings.
For me, accepting others and feeling accepted myself often centers on food and language. Food played a major role in the school cafeteria on a military base. I grew up with many of my friends being bicultural because their moms were naives of countries outside of the United States. Therefore, our lunch boxes across the table resembled an international smorgasbord of deliciousness. Exchanging and sharing treats in our lunches was more than just trying a new food. In our youthful innocence, we were offering a part of our cultural identity and accepting that of the other. Is this not a beautiful demonstration of vulnerability?
This same transfer of acceptance happened when visiting and playing at friends’ homes. Moms from Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Louisiana, Philippines, and so many other places prepared intercontinental snacks for us to experience. Everyone’s house smelled different. The greetings and terms of endearment made each home sound different. However, the feeling of love and welcome were always the same. I also witnessed mothers who spoke different languages and some broken English create friendships over food much the way my friends and I did at school during lunch time.
Writing became a means of maintaining relationships and connection.
Some of you may remember the television series called Big Blue Marble. It featured children from around the world to highlight daily life in a variety of cultures. The show also provided an opportunity to request a pen pal. (I really loved that show. I had a pen pal from England through that program.) As a military brat, I found letter writing as a way to foster stability and connection. In this way, I learned how much words matter. Words are strong enough to strengthen bonds even when you are miles and miles apart. Moreover, words create connection as I’m experiencing through this blog.
No matter the location, home is wherever I share space with my family.
Despite all the moving across the globe and adapting to different people, my life never felt disjointed. The stability took hold in the fact that my dad, my mom, and my sister moved with me. No matter the change, they were always there. They shared the same unknowing and anticipation of change. Home was neither the house nor the things in it. Home manifested in the feeling of love and comfort from my family. In addition, I found home in the other families that also shared the common experience of unknowing and anticipation. Lingering in our midst was the unspoken understanding that though we look, speak and believe differently, our experiences were the same. We, both adults and children, somehow knew to attach ourselves to what we had in common rather than our differences. Family and community reside in the soul of the people within them.
There’s no doubt that other lessons from my life as a military brat will continue to be revealed to me. However, these four show up almost daily for me in some way. Reaching back for the past helps to make sense of who I am and who I am becoming. I’m so grateful and proud to be a military brat.