Military brats are veterans at coping
On this Veterans Day all across the country, patriotic music is being played, speeches are being given, flowers and flags festoon military graves, and we pause to honor those who have served their country so valiantly. But there are others who have also served bravely — the children of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines. We call them “military brats” — they are the children of warriors.
There are millions of military brats today — from the tiniest tykes whose dads and moms are serving overseas in Iraq or other hot spots (as well as at military bases in the States) to middle-aged baby boomers whose dads (and a few moms in those days) fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. These military brats were drafted at birth — they had no choice about whether they wanted to live a military lifestyle. And they, like their warrior fathers and mothers, have paid an enormous price to protect the freedoms and privileges that most of us take for granted.
I am one of those military brats. I was born in Orange, Calif., and my mom and I sailed to Japan when I was 9 months old to join my dad, who was fighting overseas. I didn’t see U.S. soil again until I was almost 3.
I spent my formative years moving from base to base — from Texas to Montana, from California to Virginia, from Germany to Illinois, from Dover, Del., to Puerto Rico. I was at home nowhere — and I was at home everywhere. I learned to make friends quickly, because I knew I would lose them quickly. We were like traveling gypsies, moving from place to place, packing and unpacking — only to do it all over again six months or two years later.
Such a lifestyle has its advantages, of course. I was able to see the world, live in Europe, learn a foreign language at an early age, taste exotic foods and see interesting places that many people only dream of. I had exciting adventures and enjoyed wonderful experiences — all courtesy of the U.S. government.
But there was a price I paid, too — like all military brats. Loneliness, wrenching departures from beloved friends, having to change school umpteen times, and sometimes living in places I didn’t like.
The biggest price I paid, along with the other kids, was enormous anxiety. For you see, death was always lurking in the background, but no one ever talked about it. For when you are the child of a warrior, you never know for sure when your daddy (or mommy) is going to be called to fight a battle somewhere — or who might be killed in training exercises or plane crashes, even in peacetime.
My dad was a pilot in the Air Force, and I can’t tell you the number of times I lay in my bed at night, overhearing my mom on the phone in the other room, as she called the control tower to ask what Maj. Gallagher’s estimated time of arrival was. I worried: What if my daddy doesn’t come home? What if his plane crashes?
When I was 8 my best friend lost her daddy when his plane crashed into the side of a mountain — and it wasn’t even during war. I knew if it happened to her, it could happen to me; it could happen to any of us military brats. We all grow up with a fundamental awareness of the precariousness of life and fearing that our warrior parents could be killed at any time, anywhere.
So this Veterans Day, let us remember not only the brave men and women who served their country, and the hundreds of thousands who died doing so — let us also remember the brave boys and girls who died a thousand little deaths waiting for their daddies and mommies to come home each night. Military brats serve their country too, and they pay a price every day of their childhoods. Remember them. Thank them. Hug them.
BJ Gallagher is a Los Angeles sociologist and author of children’s stories such as “A Peacock in the Land of Penguins” and “What’s the Matter with Henry? The True Tale of a Three-legged Cat.” (Breakthrough Press; 2006). Thousands of books are being donated to children of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.