For teens overseas, change is constant ... and quite an education
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2009
"I don’t like to have to meet new people and make new friends. I do it but I don’t like it. That’s the worst thing about living in the military and I wouldn’t want to do that to my family."
— Chase Lumm, 15, Lakenheath, England
"People understand what you have been through because they’ve had to do the same thing."
— Heather Knight, 13, Yokota, Japan
"I’ve had so many chances to be the new kid."
— Quincy Bazen, 15, Naples, Italy
"I would have to behave a specific way to reflect well on my parents. I want everyone to see my parents are great people. I kind of hold back my teenage urges and be more polite and speak when I’m spoken too. I need to behave a certain way as an officer’s daughter."
— Amanda Norris, 18, Okinawa, Japan
"It’s made me see the world from a different perspective. I never
— Ariel Dunbar, 15, Seoul, South Korea
"A lot of teens think it’s going to be great moving overseas and then they get here and it’s not. It’s a very stressful environment … the culture shock, parents getting deployed, teens getting harassed by security for just hanging out and the schools are a lot stricter than in the States."
— Gary Cox, 18, Yokosuka, Japan
"In the States, when you get in a fight, you just get in trouble. Here if you get in a fight, you get in trouble at school and then you get in trouble with
— Bre’anna Jones, 18, Okinawa, Japan
"There aren’t really any community secrets. It’s pretty nice, actually. You can have discussions with
— Evan Lobeto, 16, Daegu, South Korea
Madelyn Service imagines life is easier for other teenagers.
Most American teens get to grow up in one place and make old friends. But for Service, it is different.
The 15-year-old has already moved six times with her Navy family and now attends high school in western Japan.
Each move means losing friends and rebuilding her life, sometimes halfway around the world.
"I find it harder each time," said Service, who is a student at Sasebo Naval Base. "It’s harder for me to fit in here."
Thousands of military teens are stationed overseas with their families and face the same situation. They struggle to find a place for themselves while far from their home country and isolated within the highly structured and mobile culture of the U.S. military.
For many, the experience leaves them strong, resilient and worldly. Others act out under the pressures of military life overseas, sometimes resorting to vandalism or drug use, according to military counselors.
"I think we see a whole array of how they respond," said Mary Vance, a counselor with the Fleet and Family Support Center at Sasebo.
Unlike their counterparts in the United States, overseas military teens face constant moves, strict military lifestyles and must adapt to different cultures.
Vance said moving is often the biggest concern for teenagers.
"They talk about the difficulty of starting over," Vance said. "In a one way, it builds resiliency. Going to college is not as big of a deal because they have been uprooted and moved many times."
But for teens, the payoffs of constant moves are not always clear at the time.
Jasmine Balasa, 13, of Sasebo, counts on her fingers to remember all the places she has lived with her Navy family.
"I just feel like, ‘What am I going to do?’" Balasa said. "You are the new girl from who-knows-where and [the other teens] all have their own friends."
Teenagers are especially focused on friendships and the bonds they form with others, said Linda Lassiter, a child and teen counselor with the Sasebo Fleet and Family Support Center.
Breaking those bonds during a move can create huge stress in a teenager’s life and lead to depression or avoidance of school, Lassiter said.
Courtney Brazen, a mother in Naples, Italy, said her most difficult job is telling her three children that it is time to move again.
The Brazen family moved constantly over her husband’s 24-year Navy career. Her oldest son, Quincy Brazen, 16, has enrolled in 10 schools in the past 10 years.
A recent move forced Quincy to leave his first real girlfriend behind in Germany. Despite attempts to keep a long-distance relationship, Bazen watched her son go through a painful separation.
"Don’t just tell them ‘Oh, you’ll get over it,’ " she said. "It’s a real loss. Listen to them. Ask them, ‘Are you OK?’"
Between the stresses of moving, overseas military teenagers deal with the same angst and uncertainty that has always afflicted teens.
It is a time when many people push the bounds of authority and search for their own identity — activities that can be complicated by the isolated and strict military environment at overseas posts, Lassiter said.
"So much of our lives and their lives revolve around the base and there is not a strong civilian component," Lassiter said. "Here almost everybody is tied to the base … That is hard for a lot of them when they move from the States."
The isolation can cause frustration among teens and sometimes rebellion, from minor issues such as disrespect or defiance to more severe misbehavior such as breaking the law, she said.
Gary Cox, an 18-year-old high school student from Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, said military teens live in a stressful environment overseas that includes harassment from base security for hanging out and much stricter discipline at school.
Open criticism of his appearance is not unusual on the military base, Cox said.
"I get confused with being a sailor all the time … people will tell me that I’m not supposed to be wearing earrings or my pants are too baggy," he said. "I wouldn’t get that in the States."
Bre’anna Jones, 18, from Okinawa, said teachers have reprimanded her for showing a tattoo, saying it should not be visible because her parent is in the military.
"I’m not in the military and I didn’t choose for my mother to be in the military," she said.
While some struggle with moving or military discipline, overseas teens also see a major advantage to growing up far outside the United States, according to counselors.
"I think they see [multiculturalism] as a strength and I think a lot of them are very proud about being able to adapt," Vance said.
Overseas military bases are surrounded by foreign cultures and are often a patchwork of ethnicities on the inside as well.
"Even within the base community, it is very common for them to have friends that speak two languages fluently," Vance said.
Tina Sparks, the child and youth program director in Sasebo, said local teens can quickly relate to other cultures and feel comfortable around people who are different.
"For the most part, our kids accept it very easily and you don’t see the teens seeing the difference in other people," Sparks said.
Evan Lobeto, 16, a high school student in Daegu, South Korea, said the diversity of the military community has made him worldly but also separated him from less-traveled teens in the United States.
"It’s a lot easier to blend in with the people in a military community, because they come from different places in the world," he said. "It’s a lot harder to fit in in the States. Most of the kids have lived there their whole lives and have the same idea of what’s cool."
Not all cultural experiences are easy. The plunge into a foreign country offered some difficult lessons for Chase Lumm, 15, of RAF Lakenheath in England.
Lumm said making English friends has been difficult at times and he was even punched in the face once by an English boy in his neighborhood — an extreme example of how Americans are singled out for being different.
The experiences made him empathize more with outsiders like himself who have difficulties fitting in, Lumm said.
"I think I am more open-minded and accepting of people," he said. "I look at things differently and other nationalities from a different perspective."
Military teens often have strong feelings and opinions about life overseas, but many of the long-term effects may not become visible until adulthood, Lassiter said.
The travel, culture and open-mindedness can be real advantages later in life, while more difficult experiences such as moving can create problems, Lassiter said.
"For some people, they really reap the benefits from the learning experiences," Lassiter said. "Some people had such a hard time they fear change and they don’t like to change their environment."
In the end, acknowledging the good and the bad is important for former military teens trying to understand themselves, Lassiter said.
"We all have our own individual experiences that make us what we are," she said.
Monique Rose is still searching for the meaning in her own military experiences.
Rose, now 20 and a college student in New York City, said she moved between Japanese and American social circles as a mixed-race black and Japanese teenager growing up at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.
It was valuable training as communication and relationships are increasingly global, she said.
"I think that being tolerant towards differences is essential to a world full of shifting and changing people," Rose said.
Meanwhile, Rose said she struggled at first to overcome stifling military life — the small community, conformity, myriad regulations.
"When it became time to fill out college applications for extremely competitive schools, I couldn’t really place what distinguished me from tens of thousands of other applicants," she said.
Rose said that episode seems absurd to her now. "Now, I see that I’ll be the outsider of the group wherever I go in the world due to my upbringing."
Bradley Forbes, 17, is still an insider.
The 17-year-old is a senior at Yokota Air Base and surrounded by a small group of other globetrotting military teenagers who understand him because they are also "used to moving around all the time."
Forbes said he is looking to the future after high school at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
But he is also trying to enjoy the present.
"Not many people get to do this," he said.
Ashley Rowland, Sandra Jontz, Charlie Reed, David Carter, Cindy Fisher and Bryce Dubee contributed to this story.
Students at overseas schools tell their stories:
Matthew C. Perry H.S.
Matthew C. Perry H.S.
Angel E. Fraden
Matthew C. Perry H.S.
Emily Evans Ashby