Culture News

A Discussion With Grown-Up Military Kids

April 28, 2021

April, the Month of the Military Child, honors the role of the children of service members. LMI has many veterans in our workforce but, for this month, I reached out to those who’d grown up as military children. I asked about their experiences and what they carried into their adult lives. Read on for a look back at growing up as a military brat!

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Military family
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Military family

Life as a Military Brat

The aspect of military childhood most civilians can immediately think of is the regular relocation. Our grown-up military brats had mixed feelings about the constant moves. Nicole Jackson (consultant, human capital strategy) said, “People ask if I hated moving every 2 to 4 years, but I didn’t. It was an adventure to learn a new city, meet new friends, and experience new cultures. I would not change that experience for the world.” Gregg Rhame (senior consultant, security) came to cherish these adventures, “I used to be jealous of my cousins because they stayed in the same schools and grew up with friends. But, as I got older, I realized that I have friendships all over the world with people who I would have never met if we hadn’t moved around.”

These benefits don’t mean moving isn’t hard. Crystal Eden (principal, data visualization) reflected on how military kids mature faster than their civilian counterparts: “I think it comes from adjusting to changing circumstances—moving, parents missing special events, etc.—and the adults being honest as to the ‘why’ of it all.” Lisa Brown (consultant, benefits) discussed how tough it can be, “You make friends and you move. You don’t have ‘history’ in the place you live. Everyone already knows each other and you’re the weird new kid in school.” Even so, she says, “I hated being a military brat as a kid but, as an adult, I love all my stories and experiences that many children (and even adults) never had.”

As far as the culture of military brats, Jana DiCarlo (consultant, executive assistant) thinks the name is a miss: “I never knew a military brat that didn’t respect their parents and their wishes. The term ‘brat’ is wasted on us.” Liz Connell (consultant, strategic communications) emphasizes a distinction between service members and their kids: “My father, a Marine colonel, was clear that, as children, we were not in the military. I referred to all my father’s colleagues and our family friends who were in the military as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ As an adult, I call military personnel by their rank. However, one day at work, I ran into a family friend, who was a major general, and I greeted him with ‘Mr. So and So.’ My customer was upset with me! (But the major general wasn’t.)”

Traditions

You bring elements from your childhood into adulthood. However, military kids have diverse experiences. As an example, Heidi’s mom collected driver’s licenses: “During a traffic stop, a highway patrolman in Virginia asked for my mom’s license. She had one from Hawaii that never expired, one from Kansas from where we had just moved, and one from South Carolina where we were living. The officer was so confused that he let my mom off with a warning.”

I remember volksmarches: formalized hikes, with participants checking in at the start and following a prescribed route. Through them, we saw different parts of Germany and met new people. – Patrick

Having spent grades 3–11 in Hawaii, I carry a sense of aloha in my heart. I love island food, hula, ukulele, cultural diversity, tropical flowers, island history, and folklore. – Kathy

At the Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market), we bought gifts and drank Gluhwein (warm mulled wine) while we browsed. Every Christmas, I display our wooden pyramids and Nuremberg angels, and make Gluhwein for holiday parties. – Gregg

Because I lived in Texas, I say “y’all” a lot. If you tell me you don’t like Selena, we cannot be friends. – Nicole

In Hawaii, they would make kālua pig for all the major holidays. I loved hanging out at these huge beach parties. The guys buried a pig in the sand to cook all night, the women played music and told stories, and us kids ran up and down the beach until sunrise! – Crystal

My favorite theme from our responses is creating community. For example, Jana mentioned taking in those who had no one to spend the holidays with: “At the end of the Vietnam War, since we could not travel with our dads, the families waited out that time in Mallorca, Spain, where the Marine Corps arranged for us to host sailors from the Naval aircraft carriers in town. We missed our dads terribly and the sailors missed their kids, so it was a win-win!” Liz summarized it best when she said, “the only firmly fixed holiday tradition we have is to be together.”

Community

Military kids get a lot of practice in meeting new people and traveling! Here are some tips and tricks from those who know:

  • Showing an interest in other people tends to grease the wheels. – Crystal
  • Embrace the experience. My parents believed in living on the local economy, so we traveled as much as possible, ate local foods, embraced local customs, learned the language, and made friends with citizens. – John Ward (senior consultant, proposals)
  • Make it more about the place than the people—find what you love about the place and embrace the people who love that too. – Heidi Graham (principal, management strategy)
  • Be open-minded. You will be surprised at how everyone has a story and most of them are amazing. – Patrick Mahoney (director, Space & Air Force market)
  • Get out and meet people. We try and do that now in our community, having various events (pre-COVID-19) or helping our neighbors if they need assistance during these trying times. – Gregg
  • Be kind, respectful, and polite. Smile. Ask questions. – Jana
  • If you have military children, introduce them to other military brats. They are in the same boat, needing friends and not knowing anyone. Be patient with them and understand that sadness comes with the territory. – Lisa
  • Joining an extracurricular activity is helpful for kids. I highly recommend coordinating a block party. – Nicole
  • It is easier to build a community with military families than it is with civilian families because they all understand that each family moves usually every 2–3 years. – Sean Perch (consultant, systems engineering)
  • Just jump in. You can reinvent yourself at the next duty station. – Kathy McLernon (director, program management center of excellence)

Schooling

For military kids, school experiences varied between public, private, parochial, DoDEA, or international schools. DoDEA schools offered a haven of just military kids, as John experienced: “As a non-Hawaiian resident, I was discriminated against by a few of the local kids. It was rough, but my friends were protective compared to in Germany, where I went to a DoDEA school, and it was more insular than Hawaii.” Nicole’s DoDEA school was a tight-knit community with everyone in it together, not separated by cliques: “It was easy to hang out with anyone and everyone. I had a closer relationship to my teachers at the DoD school. My 5th grade teacher gave my family her dog when she moved off base and couldn’t keep him!” Heidi said, “The biggest difference was the sense of family you had in a DoDEA school—every kid was in the same boat.” Gregg still connects with his fellow DoDEA students from Hanau: “We usually have about 300 or so of us that get together about every three years.”

Some kids attended local schools, learning the language and traditions. Sean was a bilingual elementary school student: “I learned German as a young child. We walked home for lunch if we wanted, because eating lunch at home is a German tradition.” Liz experienced lots of different schools, but her international school in Moscow stood out: “It was run by the U.S., Canadian, Australian, and United Kingdom governments; had about 250 students from around 35 countries; and was housed with the Japanese and Swedish schools. Classes and coursework were in English but many languages swirled in the hallways. My time there shaped my worldview and how I interact with people more than any other experience while living abroad.” Jana went to a Dominican Catholic school in Taiwan with a handful of other American kids: “The entire school organized every day in a courtyard, sang a song, and marched or exercised to start the day. This was a total hoot.” Lisa preferred outside schools to DoDEA schools, in part because “it was sad to see your classmates there with you one year and then gone the next.”

As Grown-Ups

Many of our respondents transitioned to the civilian sphere, but cite their childhood experiences as influencing how they work as adults, especially with service members. Lisa says, “It has helped me understand how service members communicate and work with civilians, especially in HR and specifically employee benefits.” Katherine Kline (senior analyst, administrative assistant) says, “When I see any individual in uniform, they are automatically family in my book.” John, even as a civilian, has “a sense of formality and respect” and an “understanding of the rigidity of command.” Sean explained that his background enables him to translate between worlds: “I understand that those who serve have had ‘mission-first’ drilled into them. When they transition to or are working with the private sector, they may come off as gruff, impersonable, uncaring, rude, or some other negative characteristic. I mediate with or advocate to others to help them understand that those who serve are focused on the mission, because that is what they know, and they are doing their job to the best of their ability.” Heidi was commissioned the year her dad retired, and says, “The biggest difference was having no sense of rank when growing up. I was friends with the general’s daughter and the sergeant’s son. I had to check myself when I transitioned from brat to officer in college to not be too familiar with people who were much higher rank.” Kathy has transitioned to multiple positions: “I was a military brat, a military wife, and a military mom. The one thing that never changes is the singularly wonderful experience of welcoming your military loved one safely home from deployment.”

You Know I Have To Ask…

Finally, I asked the dreaded question: Where are you from? A few pick a location—where they lived the longest or most often, or where they graduated from high school. Others answer more literally: that they grew up all over, here and there, or “nowhere, but everywhere.” Some name themselves as a brat from one service or another. Sean’s answer sums it up: “When someone asks me where I was raised, I answer, ‘in the U.S. Army.’”

Many thanks to the respondents for their time and patience in crafting this post.

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