Reflections from an Army Brat in Uniform
Originally published here at bourbonandbattles.com on April 13, 2016.
April is “Month of the Military Child,” or as they are perhaps better known within armed forces communities, military brats.
I’ll thicken the terminology and further introduce “Army brat,” which better identifies my three daughters, considering my branch of service. They are Army brats, just like I once was and just like my father was too. My mom was even an Air Force brat.
Despite the generational legacy, we don’t really celebrate the month in our home. However, the occasion does provide me now with an opportunity to reflect on what being an Army brat means to me, both as an alumnus of that group and as the father of three young brats.
Your House Isn’t Your Home
It’s no revelation that being an Army brat is synonymous with having a wandering childhood, devoid of a hometown but replete with diverse life experiences. Even at a single duty station, Army brats often recall living in multiple houses, especially if your family was on the post housing waiting list. Right now, my family is only in our fourth house since I pinned on my butter bar, but it’s my 17th+ house in total (not counting my four years in undergrad).
I’m not sure at what point you get used to moving around or if it’s something that never bothers you to begin with, but my parental perspective sheds new light on the experience. My oldest kid is a 6 year old kindergartner who was born at Fort Hood and has already lived on both coasts of the United States, plus a couple places in between. During our PCS from the Captains Career Course (her second move), she made a negative connection in her mind between the moving company employees and anyone who came to our door, including the pizza guy. She was afraid that they were back to pack up all our stuff and uproot us again. It was a little heartbreaking at the time, but she thankfully got over it before we moved to California with two more kids in tow.
Military brats are uncommonly resilient, adaptive, and adventurous. They embrace the nomadic lifestyle, and, yes, that “itch” to move is a very real thing. It’s been less than a year since we moved to California, and my kids are already asking about our next move. They’re already beginning to understand that your house isn’t your home. Your “home is where the Army sends you” as the cheesy saying goes.
As a former Army brat who is now serving on active duty, it never gets any easier explaining to people where you’re from. This challenge was renewed for me when I came to grad school. Introducing myself, it was easy to say where I’d just moved from, but following it up with where I’m from originally became an indicator of how tired I was of answering the question. If I didn’t feel particularly chatty, I’d say “Texas” and leave it at that. The longer version went something like this: I’m the son of an Army soldier, born at Fort Hood, Texas, but I lived a lot of places growing up (including Korea), even though my dad was assigned back to Texas twice more later in his career (hauling the family along with him), ultimately retiring from there; I graduated both high school and college in Texas, met my wife there, and served at my first duty station there. So Texas is home.
It’s probably not the quick ice breaker response most folks are looking for.
Still, it’s a familiar refrain that I’ve fallen back into reciting as needed. Except now I recognize that my girls will have to learn similar steps to that same dance. While my wife and I call Texas home, only my oldest was born there (same hospital as me and all). The younger two girls have visited family there a few times but have otherwise never lived in the Lone Star State. That divergence from their parents’ origin stories is only the first clause in what will ultimately become the paragraph they will recite when someone asks “so, where are you from?”
Annoying or not, the “assignment history” list Army brats can rattle off on demand is unique and shared by few. Perhaps unfamiliar and maybe unrelatable for civilians, it symbolizes a childhood of diversity, experience, and even heartbreak for leaving things behind. Being “hometownless” may be tough to explain, but it defines who an Army brat is.
Different but the Same
When my dad deployed to the Middle East with the 101st for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 90s, we communicated sporadically through infrequent phone calls and even through a lagging system of recorded cassette tapes sent through the mail. There was no internet or any of its associated communication apps, and phone calls were expensive. Today my kids probably couldn’t even guess what a cassette tape is.
Flash forward to the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and my dad, now close to retirement, was able to videoconference into my high school graduation and watch me cross the stage from Baghdad. It was the first year they ever did such a thing. My family and I even got to have a short one-on-one talk with him after the ceremony. Even as recently as early OIF, video chat was still pretty novel; it was unrefined and choppy, but it was totally amazing and felt like a blessing.
Not 10 years later, I FaceTimed into my oldest daughter’s birthday party and sang her the happy birthday song right along with the group while I sat in my CHU in Kabul, Afghanistan. I could post photos from my Operation Enduring Freedom experience on Facebook and see real-time posts from my stateside family and friends, including my wife’s photos of daily life back home with our (at the time) two young girls.
Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, but it only does so much to compensate for the separation. Growing up, my dad deployed in support of ODS/S, was stationed in Korea twice (once unaccompanied), went on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala, deployed in support of OIF, and was away for countless field exercises and NCOES schools. For the majority of that time, we didn’t enjoy much of the communications freedom we do now, but we got by, and it didn’t feel like a big deal at the time. It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the parent/child relationship that I gained a greater appreciation for those tools.
When I deployed in 2012, I stepped on the plane about two weeks after the birth of my second daughter. That was hard enough, but communicating by taking advantage of technology definitely helped. Even in our connected age, however, the effects of physical separation stay the same. Call me crazy, but I feel like my physical absence that first year or so of my daughter’s life had a formative impact on her personality. She’s tougher, more shy, and probably a little meaner than her two sisters (not in a bad way). Maybe that’s a product of her being the middle child, but I can’t help but wonder if my personality was also shaped similarly as an Army brat. One way or the other, I think I’m better for it, and I know she is. I wouldn’t want her any other way.
It’s tough business being the family of a service member, but a rewarding one. We may not celebrate “Month of the Military Child” in our home, but maybe I should rethink that if for no other reason than to be thankful for the experiences I had that I now get to watch my daughters share.
If you have “good news stories” about your time or your kids’ time as a military brat, feel free to share here or on the B&B social media pages.