My father served in the United States Air Force from 1950 through 1970. I was born in 1957 during his second tour in Japan. Thus began my own career, you might say, as a military brat.
A military brat is a slang term for a military dependent. It sounds like a negative description, but we brats proudly use the expression to describe ourselves. Actually, I don't doubt that a brat came up with it.
Military brats, especially “old school” brats like me, led difficult lives following military fathers from base to base, constantly changing schools and making new friends, sometimes once or even twice in a year. In my case, my résumé of schools numbers 14 institutions before graduating in 1975 from high school.
After my dad retired and hung up his Air Force uniform for the last time, he started a second career in his home state of Michigan. My new “civilian” Michigan classmates seemed a bit like inexperienced bumpkins. After all, I had had been exposed to more different types of peoples, cultures, and climates than any of them could ever imagine.
Just the same, these children of factory workers and farmers did not admire me; instead they looked at me as an outsider and made me feel a bit unwelcome. They had known each other almost since birth and had attended the same school their entire lives, so a new guy like me was just an interloper. I didn’t care—I knew I only had to put up with them for just over four years before I would be off again—following in my dad’s footsteps as an American serviceman.
I didn’t dwell on this downbeat turn of events, because out of necessity and through thorny experience, military brats are used to facing adversity. We learn very early not to expect things to go the expected or preferred way. Brats figure out real quick how to adjust to new situations and how to adapt and overcome when things turn difficult.
This lesson of learning to adapt to adversity is one that serves us well for the rest of our lives. It makes us willing to face the unknown with intrepidity, and it’s probably the reason why so many of us end up following our father’s into the military. Leaving home isn’t a problem for people who have learned that “home” is a state of mind; it’s where you hang your metaphorical hat.
By attending so many schools, at times two in one school year, you might think that it would have a negative effect on grades and academic accomplishments. This does not generally seem to be the case for most brats. I usually averaged A’s and B’s with an occasional C, and the further I progressed in grade level the better I did.
My travels made me particularly proficient at geography, history and social sciences. When my teachers spoke of a war in Europe or a mountain range in Asia, I could easily visualize the subject matter. I had lived on the same ancient road that Romans, Persians, Macedonians, Crusaders and many others had marched upon over the centuries. How could any kid not get a sense of history after something like that?
Just as we got a sense of history, many of us got a sense of OUR PLACE in it. Our service fathers, and nowadays service mothers, continually find themselves involved in military operations that eventually end up in the history books. I remember clearly the tension at home when my father became embroiled in the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I was very young, but the fear and apprehension of that time is still etched in my mind.
Because they were constantly involved in the implementation of the nation’s policies, our parents unintentionally exposed us to what at times were intense and sometimes troublesome discussions. I grew up at the height of the Vietnam War, and the arguments involving it constantly bombarded the tender ears and innocent minds of young kids like me. I carefully listened to their arguments and tirades, and unconsciously absorbed the thoughts and attitudes of these wound-up grownups.
Naturally, most of the mind-sets to which I was exposed reflected the considerably conservative and patriotic stance of military servicemen. I attribute my existing aggressive outlook towards how we should handle the Terrorist War to the days I listened to the conversations of my dad and his buddies while they drank beer and ate charbroiled hamburgers and steaks in our backyard.
Being a military brat is something all us brats take great pride in. We brats are part of an exclusive club. We shared similarly challenging experiences and consider ourselves the better for it. I treasure and will never forget my time as a brat. It’s an experience that I recommend for anyone’s kid.