This past weekend, at Fort Belvoir’s Oktoberfest, I hoisted beer steins (okay, technically, plastic tumblers) with a number of my former classmates in celebration of our Heidelberg American High School All Year’s Reunion.
We were that group composed primarily of middle-aged men and women sporting their shrinking (?) black and gold letter jackets that, as one graduate said, “needed an expander” to fit better, hanging out under the fest tent.
There were folks of many ages and races present. But, the common denominator of our group, besides all having attended the same Department of Defense high school in Germany, is that we each answer to the descriptor, “military brat.”
Normally, the use of the word brat in any context is pejorative. But, the label “military brat” is actually endearing within the military culture and is a term of affection and respect. A “military brat” or “brat” technically refers to any child of a parent who serves or has served in the military and is a label that lasts a lifetime.
Generally, “brats” experience nomadic lifestyles involving frequent moves, lengthy parent deployments, exposure to many diverse cultures and a revolving door of coming-and-going friends.
I recently queried some of my “military brat” friends and asked them to share some of the highlights and lowlights of growing up with the kind of unique lifestyle we did. Here’s what I got in response:
Mike Cannon, White Lake, NC – Lifelong friends made from a “unique” experience that most would never understand. Has also led to meeting other alumni that have common ground. [Let the record reflect that Mike is also the person quoted above with the expander comment!]
Jane Bell Lassiter, Manassas, VA – Pros: You develop an ability to make friends quickly, comfortable in all sorts of settings because you’re used to being thrown into various situations with little notice, assorted cultures, etc. You are highly adaptable and it will prove very beneficial when you’re older as you’ll be able to handle change better than your “civilian” peers. When still in school, you don’t stress too much about bad teachers, mean kids or a duty station that you don’t like because you know it will eventually change…you get another chance at better teachers, nicer kids or an exciting duty station. You will always remember where you lived when you hear certain songs on the radio.
Cons: You suffer some insecurities due to leaving friends or having friends leave you. It hurts. Being so far away from family - grandparents, cousins, etc. Having to learn new cultures/foods/languages in a short period of time. This is stressful at first, but often turns into a "pro."
The bottom line...the PROs far outweigh the CONs. I wouldn't have traded my upbringing for anything! Proud Army brat with 23 moves in 18 years!
John Herge, Denver, CO -- We got to see a whole lot of this world. It imprints on our perspective of the world in ways that most U.S. citizens never get a chance to see. I think it prepared me well for my academic and professional careers. Without Facebook though, I would say it would be difficult to define who my real circle of friends would be. Like most brats, my closest friends are scattered across the globe. I still find that developing real and authentic roots in one place is near to impossible. Whilst, I have a home in Denver and married to a born and raised Denverite, developing truly local friends is more of a process of being adopted by her circle of local friends. This is my conundrum...I still would never trade out my childhood for any other!
Lynda Spaulding Aucompaugh, Coxsackie, NY — I went to elementary school in Thailand and graduated in Germany. That's pretty cool! Although I also went to approximately ten different schools, somehow I really enjoyed it. Brats are always welcomed with open arms because everyone remembers what it’s like to be the "new kid."
My Confession: Studying state government was unheard of. As a student, I never stayed long enough to see the point to learn the history of Maryland or Virginia, Texas, or Colorado....I knew I was just going to move on.
I also never read Romeo & Juliet. I left one school just as they were starting it and entered the next as they had finished.
I currently live in Coxsackie, NY and there is not a real military presence. Most people around here have lived in this community their entire lives as did their parents. It seems a bit harder to fit in as an adult. We'll always be the outsiders. For example, we purchased our house more than eight years ago. Yet people still refer to it as the "Bender Home" - after the previous owners.
I wouldn't trade it for the world. The connection brats make are for a lifetime. Brat children make courageous adults. We are spontaneous, creative, and flexible. We adapt!
Donald Davis, Bryan, TX — Pros: Got to see the world and experience firsthand places that you see in the movies like the location of real 'Bridge over the River Kwai' in Thailand, going through Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie when it was still active, seeing the Roman Coliseum and the Vatican, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, seeing numerous castles that are older than our country. It was amazing that in two hours you could be in another country with its own culture and language.
Cons: Before Facebook, you would tend to lose track of friends that you made in each location and would have to start over at each new location.
Both a Pro and Con: You see firsthand the sacrifices that the military makes and to some degree the risks that you also take on as a dependent in a foreign country. We were in Germany when the Iran hostages were taken and the Mein Hof Gang were bombing in Germany. We also knew if the Russians had invaded Germany, our chances of getting out of there were pretty slim so one tends to appreciate home a little more and not take things for granted.
Pamela Seigrist Andersen, Atlanta, GA — By far, my most treasured skill is adaptability. Moving as often as we did, I learned to get in quickly, adapt and thrive where possible. That was sometimes with the cool kids, sometimes not. I can hunt out my spot, and make it work. Secondly, I learned how to cut losses. This proved to be valuable as a teenager and as an adult. When life dictated that it was time to move on from a situation, I was usually able to do so with little difficulty. I learned to be quick on the rebound and move on.
Brian Saari, Austin, TX — Never had an issue with making friends. Moved enough that it became second-nature to walk up to strangers and introduce myself. Saw just about every part of this country and every bit of Europe. I found that it was still about attitude. One could embrace it or dread it. Friendships, for me, have lasted longer with my brat friends and it is always easier to reconnect/start up again.
Tamara Harnly Busch, Monroe, NJ — Being a brat was fantastic — although sometimes I hated the every two-three year move. My father, who was a Navy brat had little sympathy for me — he went to three high schools and told me I had it easy! Being a brat prepared me for being able to quickly meet people, go with the flow and learn a location quickly. In sales, this has helped me in numerous ways — In Korea, I was able to out-drink my co-workers and find our hotel. In Nice, France, I was able to speak German enough to describe our product and in Las Vegas, at CES [Consumer Electronics Show] was able to cajole the bartender to keep the bar open (he was German). My life has been enhanced so much I sent my daughter to live in Heidelberg for a year with my mother. Trying to make a brat out of her yet!
Kathleen Casey Sanz, Hilton Head Island, SC — This weekend was my 30-year reunion from a stateside school I went to senior year. I wanted to go and belong to that ritual where you reminisce about kindergarten and all the wonderful memories. I couldn't because I belong to a group of people that are from nowhere and know no one, yet have more friends in more places than anyone else. None of which you went to school with for more than three years. I went to 5 different high schools, do you think my parents worried or even wondered how it would affect my self-esteem, confidence or social life? They did what was best for the family. I wouldn't trade my life for the world but it has left behind an empty spot in my life where I still don't feel like I belong here in the "world."
Kris Neel Tibbs, Albuquerque, NM — Let's see...worst thing about being a brat is not having a real "hometown." I see my civilian friends head home to places where everyone knows their name...I don't have that single place where I am a "local." Best thing about being a brat is the feeling of connectedness to those who shared the experience. It's why our reunions are so much fun....we may not know everyone, but in some way we have a shared history that most of us can relate to. We also have the advantage of a broader view of the world. The "hometown" folks are not always able to see beyond the goings-on of their own little world.
Leigh Mazach Mang, Alexandria, VA — Like most girls, I had issues with my dad being gone all the time and thought my mom was crazy/weak for being married to someone that put so much stock in his job!! Of course, now, I am amazed at how stupid those thoughts were. I do think that moving around all the time has influenced my dream to live here in Mount Vernon till my kids go to college. I never got to experience that with all the moves. I think the funniest part about being a military brat and espousing how terrible it was for the first 24 years of my life is that I then married a military man...something that I said I would never do!
Eva Clark-Hey, Walnut Creek, CA — I think one of the benefits is how close I am with my family - they are the only constant in your life so they are essential. The two-sided coin of moving around so much is being able to make friends easily but having a hard time making lasting friends because you know that they could be moving at any time. I think the fact that your father’s job/career could be messed up if you mess up was a good lesson too -- don't see that so much in civilian life. And of course the opportunity for travel was a plus.
Tamara Myers Rogers, Monument, CO — Pros: 1.) Change is no big deal - I moved 13 times from birth to H.S. graduation...when it came time to take a chance on a job in a state I had never visited, I had no reservations... have lived here now 21 years. I'm okay with flying by the seat of my pants. 2.) Developed a lot of friendships with people that now live all over the world from all walks of life and backgrounds. 3.) I have seen the world -- or at least a really big part of it. 4.) I have a deep appreciation for every person that has served or is serving their country -- this is not easy for them or their families.
Cons: 1.) Never lived around my extended family - just had a brother so our family of four [on] Thanksgivings and Christmases were a little sad 2.) Moved the summer between freshman and sophomore year in H.S. It was very difficult to break into the cliques that had been firmly established freshman year.
Mary Dennis Barrett, Prior Lake, MN — Quote me on this…The very best thing about being an army brat is the lifelong friend I met in German class in the eighth grade. [Aww, she was talking about me.]