I’ve had the unique experience of being a military kid (we’re often referred to as brats), as well as an Air Force officer, and I was briefly on my way to becoming a Navy spouse. Now I’m a veteran. I’ve gone full circle. Although having the military in my life for 30 years (yeah, wow!) afforded me some awesome opportunities, I really wish I had been more prepared for the aspects of military life that weren’t so great. I don’t want to say that my experience as a military brat was typical. This is just my perspective on how military life has affected me.
The military has its own culture that takes a while for some to adapt to, but if you’re born into it, it’s weird to try to adjust to the world outside of it. I remember the first time someone told me they had to pay to go to the doctor, I was like, “Huh?” Also, people having the same friends and living in the same house from birth until graduation is a completely foreign concept for me. Being in the military means uniformity and that the service member follows orders. With that said, the service member’s family (usually referred to as dependents) also follow. If you’re a civilian, and you don’t like your job, you can quit and find a new one. That’s not really a thing in the military. For example, when the service member gets Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders, the family usually goes along to the new duty station. For a child, moving to a different neighborhood is a stressful event, let alone moving to an entirely new state across the country or new country.
In my case, I’ve moved a lot. My family moved several times between my birth and age five. Moving when I was starting 1st grade was not that impactful, but when I was 11 years old, I went to three different schools in 6th grade when my mom got orders from Mississippi to Alaska. Then when I was 14 years old, we moved from Alaska to Germany. I went to two different schools for 9th grade. One thing I found out is that if your parent is really high ranking, the family moves a lot more. I’ve had friends that have moved just about every year of their life. I can’t imagine what that was like.
According to Healthline, moving to a new location can be a traumatic event. I first learned that moving could be traumatic when I read Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps Score. Reactions to trauma include:
- sudden, dramatic mood changes
- anxiety and nervousness
- flashbacks or repeated memories of the event
- difficulty concentrating
- altered sleeping or insomnia
- changes in appetite
- intense fear that the traumatic event will recur, particularly around anniversaries of the event (or when going back to the scene of the original event)
- withdrawal and isolation from day-to-day activities
- physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and nausea
- worsening of an existing medical condition
Whenever we moved, I would get very angry and irritable, be unable to let go of the place we had lived before and beg and plead to move back. I’d have terrible anxiety about my first days of school, and often I wouldn’t be able to eat due to the stress. Since I had so much trouble making friends, I developed a pattern. By the time we were preparing for a new move, I had finally made some friends. Once I got close to them, we’d leave. As a result, I stopped trying to get close to people. I began to have unstable relationships with others where I just cut people out without saying anything, even if we weren’t moving. I stopped seeing the value of people and friendships as a teenager.
Another aspect of being a military brat that was harmful were the constant deployments after September 11th, 2001. A deployment is stressful for every member of the family. The spouse is suddenly alone, and the entire household dynamic changes. When my mom left for the first deployment that I remember, my dad was tasked with being a vegetarian that had to feed meat eating children. It was pretty funny, the first time he tried to cook chicken. He fired up the grill and just tossed half frozen chicken breasts on the flames. You can imagine how they turned out; burnt to a crisp on the outside and pink on the inside. There was a bit of a learning curve for all of us.
What was most scary about my mom’s deployments was the fear that she’d die or get horribly injured. My family was lucky enough to have my mom come home safely each time. Many families were not so lucky. A particularly scary memory I have is being on the phone with her (this is before Skype and FaceTime were an option) during her sporadic calls. An alarm went off while she was talking to us, and all we heard was her yell, “Shit! Shit!” and then the line went dead.
Of course, we rushed to turn on one of the 24-hour news networks to see if there was any report of anything happening. There was nothing. Maybe about an hour later, she called back saying that the base had been mortared, and she had to take shelter under her desk, but she was fine. My mom is a nurse, so I can’t imagine what she saw each time she deployed. She doesn’t talk about it much, but one time when she came home, my younger brother and I high fived at the airport and she jumped. That was the first time PTSD ever crossed my mind as something that would affect my family.
One thing the military culture does is explain away how these things affect children with, “Kids are chameleons and resilient. Military brats can adapt like nobody’s business.” I even bought into it when I was a Public Affairs officer, writing this article. It was my very first one on Active Duty, and it won an award. But when I discussed what being a military brat was like in therapy years later, I realized something horrifying. I had been a chameleon so long that I didn’t have an identity. When people asked, “Where are you from?” I never had an answer. The concept of belonging somewhere was foreign to me. I didn’t have a personality of my own. I had stolen a bit of every single person I have ever met and all of Zooey Deschanel’s character from 500 Days of Summer with snippets of Jennifer Lopez’s portrayal of Selena. I stole her laugh. Yeah, that’s right. Even my laugh wasn’t my own. Sometimes I still feel guilty writing that article when I was Active Duty because I perpetuated an idea that was not my truth.
A weird aspect of being a military brat is that I don’t feel comfortable living somewhere for more than 3 to 4 years. I think I’m so used to moving that places get overwhelming if I have to continue close relationships. I’ve been known to self-destruct when I live someplace too long. When I lived in Fort Walton Beach, FL after getting medically retired from the Air Force, I had to get away sometimes. I’d leave abruptly without telling anyone and go to Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, and one time all the way to Seattle because I couldn’t take it anymore. I just had to leave.
I don’t know if my brothers have been affected similarly by having the military in their lives. My younger brother is currently Active Duty in the Air Force and has deployed and PCS’d multiple times. My older brother lives in Alaska and started a family there. Both are very successful in their lives, and I’m proud of them.
Many military brats have great experiences and coping skills because of all they’ve dealt with from a young age. If you ever come across an adult that grew up a military brat, ask them about it. They definitely have a unique perspective on life and the world.