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Growing Up a Military Brat

The Home of the Brave

Shawn Reese with his active military father, Sgt William T. Reese

Shawn Reese with his active military father, Sgt William T. Reese

What is a military brat?

The term “Military brat” and other forms of “brat”, like "Army Brat," are much-loved and honored terms used by those in the military or living on military bases to describe the child of a soldier who is serving full-time in the United States Armed Forces. “Brat” describes a lifestyle, a subculture, a way of growing up that is distinct from those brought up in “civilian” life.

The brat lifestyle is unique in many aspects, but of course the major difference being that brats all have a parent serving (or has served) in the military. No brat has to tell what his dad does; he's a soldier. That alone is a connection that most kids growing up in civilian life cannot understand. Most civilian kids and their friends have parents with a wide range of jobs and careers. There is no "Career Day" in Department of Defense schools because every day is career day.

The brat lifestyle includes moving around from one military base to another about every two to four years, sometimes with just a few weeks’ notice to a non-combat assignment. If the parent is being sent to a combat assignment, the brat often lives alone with the one parent and can live with the psychological after effects of having a parent in combat. Most civilian kids don’t know what it’s like to live with the knowledge on a day-to-day basis that a parent is in danger right at the moment and may not come home.

Military brats are a distinct members of a subculture that have largely been ignored by researchers even though the subculture itself is one of the oldest in the United States. Some of this ignorance can be traced back to the culture of the military fortress itself where privacy and secrets are at a premium. Military brats are taught that they are a direct reflection of their parent, and any disgrace will be seen as a fault on the parent's side.

The term brat is one of endearment. To those who are brats, it implies a quality of spunkiness and adaptability. It means that one can be flexible and adapt easily to new places and languages. It implies an ideal of being able to adjust to life in any circumstance.

Celebrating in the Fortress

Photo of Sgt. William T. Reese with the author

Photo of Sgt. William T. Reese with the author

Why a subculture?

A subculture is a cultural group that exists within a larger culture, but the members often have beliefs and interests that are contrasted with those of the larger culture.

In 1950, David Riesman defined a subculture as "a minority that actively seeks a minority style." He went on to describe the subculture as having "subversive values." In 1979, Dick Hebdige wrote that subcultures are considered negative because the members tend to be critical of mainstream society. He went on to say that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by society. Being a member of the subculture allows them to develop a sense of identity.

Many times, subcultures are considered negative or outcasts, but that doesn’t have to be so as in the case of the military brat subculture. The subculture of military brats is such that it brought together (for no part of their doing) groups of children who were and are alike in the way that they are and were raised, specifically being raised in the fortress. Also, unlike other members of subcultures, brats are able to easily blend into any culture, much like camouflage.

Unlike other subcultures, the military brat subculture did not and does not seek to criticize civilian lifestyle. Brats never actively sought to be members of this subculture, nor do they have subversive values (just the opposite is the case). What makes the military brat a subculture is that the young members are raised outside of the mainstream societal standards and expectations of civilian life.

However, brats are some the first to say that they do feel neglected and invisible from the civilian society that expects so much of them. Because of the seclusion of the fortress and its norms and mores, many civilians don't even realize that these brats even exist.

Like-minded Individuals

The author (far right) with two junior high school pals at Strassburg Kaserne in Germany in the mid 70s.

The author (far right) with two junior high school pals at Strassburg Kaserne in Germany in the mid 70s.

What shaped this subculture?

The most obvious factor that shapes the brat lifestyle is the constant moving with each new assignment or deployment from military base to military base, many times thousands of miles apart, by the active dury parent. Active duty members of the armed services do not get to choose or refuse assignments, sometimes resulting in a less-than-stellar home base. Like their parent, brats are taught from an early age not to complain; you do what you're told.

Military brats have been catergorized as "third culture kids." TDKs are kids who spent a large portion of their youth outside of the parents' culture. This makes sense as brats, like other third culture kids, build relationships to all of the cultures in which they've lived but don't really belong to any of them. To some degree, brats even identify with some parts of their parents' culture, but there is still that underlying sense of not belonging.

Military brats move from military installation to military installation, many of these being "overseas" (as opposed to "the states."). This "international lifestyle" plays a major role in shaping the brat subculture. Talk to any brat who's been to Germany, and he'll tell you about eating bratwurst and pom fritz with mayonnaise. Living overseas also meant that these brats missed out on significant aspects of American youth culture. Many of the military bases overseas only offer one English-speaking television and radio station (AFN=Armed Forces Network). Although, I'm sure that this is changing with the advent of the Internet, YouTube, and social networks.

Perhaps the biggest factor that shapes the military brat subculture is the lack of a "hometown." This lack of a hometown is the one major factor that leads to the brat’s sense of isolation and lack of belonging. Once a brat turns 18 (or 23 if he's in college), a brat cannot freely go in and out of military installations. Many military installations have been closed due to federal government funding, making what might be considered a hometown no longer existing.

It’s true that some non-military families do share some of the same lifestyle qualities and experiences, but military brats are unique in that these experiences are more concentrated. Military cultural identity also leads a brat to believe that this is completely normal because everyone in the community has this same lifestyle and culture.

Home Sweet Home

Strassburg Kaserne, Germany, post housing for military personnel and their dependents.

Strassburg Kaserne, Germany, post housing for military personnel and their dependents.

What is it like on a military base?

Military bases are like small cities except that the military culture is the dominant culture and the civilian culture is secondary. Even the “military towns,” those towns surrounding a military base often show glaring evidence of the military culture. The bases themselves (Army installations are called “posts.”) are self-contained with schools, hospitals, recreation centers, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. It would be possible for a military brat to never leave the fortress.

Brats themselves admit that their upbringing is and was significantly different than their civilian counterparts. The military norms and expectations as well as the presence of military police, check points to enter and exit the base, highly secure areas, the pervading idea of secrecy and privacy alone make the military brat lifestyle unique. Military regulations, laws, and social expectations of conduct are different than those same expectations in a civilian town.

Each morning, the brat hears Reveille being played. At 5:00 each evening (or 1700 hours), brats on a military base are expected to stop whatever they’re doing and stand at attention for Retreat. Movie theaters play the national anthem before each film. Everywhere the brat goes,the base is populated with "grunts."

While brats do live in communities, these communities change every few years. The bases themselves change due to incoming and outgoing military personnel. This constant flux means that brats lose touch with friends.

What are the positives of the brat lifestyle?

While being a brat can result in a feeling of isolation and not belonging, being a brat brings more positives than negatives.

Brats tend to have resilient personalities, above average social skills, an awareness of multiculturalism, more maturity, and an affinity for careers that entail a service to others (counseling, teaching, law enforcement). Also, brats who join some branch of the military tend to do exceptionally well because they've already been immersed in the military culture.

Since the military was integrated long before civilian life, most brats grow up in a multi-racial community where everyone is equal. Rank has no color. On a military base, even in the early 70s, it was not uncommon for a white family to live next door to a black family or a multi-racial one.

Most brats have experienced living in a foreign country, which gives brats a global outlook and experience that is completely different from civilian children, even those who have visited foreign countries as a tourist.

Living on military installations meant that brats had access to free medical and dental care and tax-free purchases in the commissary and base exchange.

As a brat myself, I wouldn't change my childhood for any childhood in any town or community anywhere.

Roll Call

The author with her address book that she purchased in Germany in the 70s while living on Strassburg Kaserne with her family.

The author with her address book that she purchased in Germany in the 70s while living on Strassburg Kaserne with her family.

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