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Documentary explores transitory lives of military children

In the opening scenes of the new documentary “Brats: A Journey Home,” filmmaker Donna Musil captures a defining characteristic of life as a military child.

Asked how they respond to the question, “Where are you from?” several now-grown-up brats respond with the answers they have recited since childhood.

“Boy, I’m not,” says one woman.

“I’m from everywhere,” says another.

The process of being raised without a permanent home under the burdens and expectations of military culture — and the impact the upbringing has — are at the center of what the filmmakers call “the first documentary about growing up military.”

“I’m hoping that this film will help people understand how we were raised and how it’s affected us,” Musil, herself an Army brat, said recently.

“Brats,” her first film, took more than six years to make, Musil said. It was inspired by a reunion she had with some old schoolmates. She found that, despite years of being apart, she could talk easily with them because they shared her early experiences in a way non-military people did not.

Military brats are a huge and largely unrecognized subculture in America, numbering some 15 million, she said. Musil wanted to connect those who feel disconnected and also present their stories to the non-military culture.

“I think it’s important people understand there are so many of us out there,” she said. “We are your spouses, your kids, your friends.”

Narrated by former Air Force brat Kris Kristofferson and including extensive comments from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf — an Army brat — along with a slew of former military children and sociology experts, the film will be close to the hearts of many military members overseas.

The frequent moves, the social pressures, the sense of duty and sacrifice — aspects of military life that have affected families for decades and continue to do so today — are all covered.

But the film goes farther. It explores the long-term impact of the upbringing, including the darker and less talked- about side effects.

Chief among them is the unspoken necessity in military culture to keep confidential anything that might tarnish or besmirch the career of the family’s active military member.

“Appearance was very important in my family,” says one brat. Violent spousal abuse, depression and alcoholism were all kept behind closed doors in the households of the interviewees, their impact internalized by the then-children in the film.

“At the age of 11, I was raped on a military installation by a soldier,” says one brat in the film, who didn’t speak of the incident for four years because it was socially unacceptable to do so in the military setting.

“You’re expected to keep these deep, dark secrets and then you’re expected to grow up and be this normal, functioning adult.”

The film doesn’t dwell on the negative. It also chronicles many positive aspects of a military upbringing, such as living in overseas locations and the independence many brats gain from moving often and constantly adapting.

To illustrate this experience, Musil uses still photographs, military films and archival footage of families from as far back as World War II, underscored by a number of songs by Kristofferson.

“The Air Force donated tons of footage,” Musil said.

The 84-minute film will be shown several times on AFN this month to coincide with the Month of the Military Child.

Seven years after she started the project, Musil said one of its most important themes has to do with the subtitle, “Our Journey Home.”

Because there is no physical place to return to for the comforts of childhood, the only place where many military children feel “home” is with one another, she said. One of her motivations for making the film was to help them all get there.

Though brats can’t go home, she said, “We can with each other.”


AFN Listings

“Brats: A Journey Home” is scheduled to appear on AFN at the following times:

Sun., 4/15, AFN-Family, 8 p.m.
Mon., 4/16, AFN-Family, 2 a.m.
Thu., 4/19, AFN-Spectrum, 11 a.m.
Sat., 4/28, AFN-Pacific, 6 a.m.
Sat., 4/28, AFN-Atlantic, 11 a.m.
Sat., 4/28, AFN-Freedom, 11 a.m.

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