Military Brat Memories

Not too long ago, I read an article written by someone who grew up near a military base. He discussed his interactions with military brats as they came and went throughout the years. It was an interesting article that I felt compelled to write a comment back that focused on what being a military kid is really like. I didn’t have the room to really express all my thoughts on the matter, so I decided to post some of them here.

I grew up a military brat. My father was in the Navy from before my birth until my sophomore year of high school. He started off as an aircraft mechanic, but moved into recruiting when I was three years old. This allowed us to stay stateside for the rest of his career, but also meant a lot more stress for him.

The first real memory I have of the military life effecting me was right before The Gulf War started. America wasn’t so grateful to our military at that time since Vietnam was still pretty fresh in everybody’s mind. This was the first huge operation since then and that made people nervous. I was in kindergarten, so I didn’t understand any of that. But I do remember standing outside while my Mom took a hairdryer to the Navy bumper stickers on our van to remove them. There was a concern for attacks on servicemen, so they were advised to remove any military decoration. When she told me what was going on, it finally sunk in how different our life was compared to others.

Obviously change is inevitable when being part of a military family. There is a lot of moving that goes. Most military members get transferred at least once every three years. So over a twenty year career that’s almost seven different places. Of course, between deployments, base closings, and issues with off base housing, that number is usually much higher.

Here is a breakdown of my life from birth through high school. This is list not 100% accurate, but its the best that I can remember. I underestimated anything I wasn’t sure on, so the actual numbers are probably higher.

  • Nine different cities
  • Fourteen different houses
  • Eight different schools (three different high schools)

That’s a lot of packing up, then leaving behind friends, safety, and comfort to start all over again and again. It may sound like fun, and it is for a while, but eventually you grow tired of being the new kid and trying to make friends when you know you’re going to leave  in a few months all over again. By high school I just stopped trying. I spent my entire sophomore year of high school speaking to no one. I was that poor sap without a lab partner in every class. That was not very fun

Seeing different towns can be enjoyable. We spent three years in Orlando which was great for a eight to ten year old. Dallas was nice as well and a great place to spend my middle school years.

The three years spent in Orlando were mostly on the Naval base there. We lived on the Annex, which had a skating rink, a huge gym, a commissary, a Navy Exchange (like a Walmart, but smaller, more outdated, and more expensive), and pretty much everything else a tiny town needs. I was free to ride my bike anywhere and everywhere, and was never scared for my safety. Base security was constantly on patrol and most members of the military are on their best behavior while on base.

All the activities on base are free, so swimming in the giant pool, going bowling, or hanging out at the skating rink didn’t cost a dime. My brother and I spent our afterschool and summer days part of the recreation center on base. It was attached to the skating rink and had just about everything a kid could want. There were pool tables, arcade games, and a Nintendo. We had an arts and crafts room and used the skating rink for all sorts of activities. We took field trips to water parks, movie theaters, and enjoyed the playground. I learned how to play teetherball and shoot pool during that time. I even learned to shoot pool left handed after I broke my elbow on a balance beam during one of my first outings at the rec center. I couldn’t participate in any of the outdoor activities, so I just shot pool off my cast. To this day, I still shoot pool better left handed than right.

My fourth grade year was the only year that I went to a “military school.” It wasn’t one of those boot camps for kids, but it was a school that was located right off the base and consisted of ninety-percent of military brats. We sung military songs in choir and at lunch sat in groups based off our parent’s branch of employment. There is a lot of competition and arguing that goes on between military kids of different branches. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I almost went to blows with an Army brat.

During the massive base closings of the mid 90’s, our base was designated to be closed as well. Most of the personnel was transferred, while the others were moved from the base housing to base apartments. My father hated apartments, so we held out as one of the last families to finally leave the base housing. This worked out great for me. I had a pretty nice group of kids that loved to play cops and robbers on base. We had sirens on our bikes and spent the days roaming the base and pulling each other over. Once the base began to empty, our playground expanded from our yards and parking lots to empty houses and screened in porches. Empty laundry rooms became jail cells, and climbing on a roof was no big deal. There was no one to yell at us or that even cared. That base became our playground and it was amazing. This was some of my best time living on base.

Having a parent in the military means you can’t always participate in afterschool programs very easily. The military isn’t too keen on its members skipping out of work early to pick up their kids or moving around their schedule to attend their son’s basketball games. My days playing high school basketball ended pretty quickly once I had no way to make it home from practice. So what did I do? I joined the ROTC. Talk about brainwashing.

Sleeping through loud noises is just one of those things you learn to get used to. Hearing jets flying over at all hours of the night, shaking your house is something that just happens. Going to air shows is free and usually pretty fun. I remember going to one show in Dallas where the tarmac was so hot our shoes started melting.

A good portion of my school supplies had with Naval Reserve printed on them. All sorts of freebies filled our house after trips and presentations. We had Naval Reserve shirts, hats, pens, pencils, carpenter pencils, rulers, sun glasses, etc. I even have a few of the pencils still around for old time sake.

I was the master of pencil break in school when I showed up with my Naval Reserve carpenter pencils. I had a couple boxes of them, and eventually the kids I kept destroying wanted to buy pencils from me. I made a pretty decent profit off those pencils.

This might be a shocker to some people, but not all military people are nice. They aren’t all the amazing veterans you see on TV who are deserving of your thanks and appreciation. In fact, a lot of them are down right assholes. As a kid I didn’t have too many issues with people on base, but as I got older that changed. The elitism and arrogance is disgusting, and the years I spent working for an IT contractor the Navy was downright miserable. Having officers in the same office as I worked was incredibly frustrating.

There is a reason for the way they act. Most military members go in straight out of high school. They are brainwashed and taught to think and act a certain way. The entire time they serve (usually four to twenty years) they live that way. They don’t have much interaction with the outside world, so as far as they think, the world runs just like the military. Then they retire or get out and are in for a rude awakening. They suddenly realize they aren’t important. Their rank doesn’t mean dick, and people don’t have to respect them anymore. Six months ago they may have commanded three thousand people, but now you are no different than someone flipping burgers at McDonalds. This causes all sorts of mental issues and its very common to see support groups for outgoing military members and transitioning advice for retirees.

Its not just our parents who end up screwed up in the head, but this sort of life takes it’s toll on anyone who is part of it. Most military brats have very little problems with change, but we do struggle making real connections. Its hard to commit to someone or something, when you feel like you will just leave it like everything else in your life. This can lead to being an introvert or acting out from the lack of control in your life.

Your body also gets into a routine of moving that you struggle with once the military life stops. Three years after my dad retired I was ready to move. I had this incredible itch that needed to be scratched. We had to move, had to start over, it was just natural. And it took another two years for that feeling to finally go away.

One of the issues I’ve struggled with the most is not having a hometown. It’s complicated for me to explain when someone asks where I am from. I was born in North Carolina and all my family lives here, but I’m not from here. I don’t have any personal roots here, and I barely went to school here. Once my dad retired we settled around Memphis, TN and I was finally able to relax and start settling down myself. It was the closest place I ever had to a home. But is it my hometown?

When possible, I say or write Parts Unknown when asked about my hometown.

When I think back to my childhood and the military influence, I see both good and bad. I see the discipline and desire to be perfect as both a bless and a curse.

What do I miss? I miss having a clean gym to use free of charge. I miss tax-free groceries. I miss the comraderie of being around other military brats. Back a few years ago, I met up in Nashville with some friends and it was the first time I had been in the company of three other military brats. It felt… right. That’s the best way I can describe it.

I have also found military brat connections in other places in life. My old boss was an Army brat and it was amazing how similar our views on life and childhoods ended up being despite an almost twenty year age difference. I think the most convincing argument on how jacked up that lifestyle is on a kid is how we both acted when Perks a of Being a Wallflower came out.

He watched it before I did, but never mentioned it. I went and saw the movie on my own and sat there in tears at certain scenes. It was like they took them straight from my life. I wasn’t sad about the content, as much as I was about how it all wasn’t necessary. How much pain and struggling that I went through in school needlessly just because my dad was in the Navy. When I finally went to confess this to him, he stopped me before I started and pretty much said verbatim everything I had felt and thought regarding those scenes. It’s that sort of understanding that creates those special bonds.

My dad was never the same after leaving the Navy, and still isn’t. I miss my base privileges, but I don’t miss that lifestyle. It’s not a proper way to live, and is not good for children or families. So while I do take some pride in being a military brat, I don’t recommend it for anyone. It wasn’t all that great.

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