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Memoirs of a Military Brat

I’m Chelsea, and I’m a Brat… which is probably the best and worst thing ever.
A Brat, if you’re unfamiliar, is just a term for a child dependent of a member of the U.S. Armed Services. My family’s particular flavor was Air Force with my Dad being the member, so my perspective, I’m sure, will be different than others. Know that some of this will be biased from my own experience but some of it will also be from my research as a grad student in the field of mental health.
I loved my experience as a Brat and I’m very grateful for my upbringing. Some are not as thankful, but some were also not as blessed as myself. I’ve lived in TLF, apartments, on-base, off-base, hotel rooms, houses, and at one point a very cramped camper. I’ve been enrolled in 8 different schools at one time or another, and I’ve lived in the States and overseas. My family has experienced deployment, TDY’s, transfers, and retirement. It was awesome and at some times awful. So here’s what I’ve learned…

  • Brats are Incredibly Resilient

Mil kids are pretty adaptable, not by choice though. You pretty much thrive or die by the third move. You know the scene in cheesy teenage movies where the main character walks in to a cafeteria and awkwardly tries to find a table to sit?  I and many others have lived this scene over and over. It really never gets much easier, but you adapt. I think this awesome skill can be so handy later in life. Being a Brat taught me to make friends and study people. I may have never fully learned how to multiply fractions, but heck I can convince a complete stranger to trade me their Cheetos for my Doritos any day and then have them invite me to their birthday party that weekend.
Some Brats adapt by choosing to not let friends in. They’ve learned that making friends can often mean losing friends a short time later. Both are viable options, and both kids are resilient, just in different ways.
I had the fun experience of learning to adapt to a different culture. My family was stationed at Ramstein AFB in Germany from when I was 4 until I was 8. We moved off-base a few months after living in apartments on-base to a neat little village just outside of the gate. I loved trying the different foods, making friends with our neighbors, learning the language, and seeing all that Europe had to offer.
Not all kids get the opportunity to adapt. Some brats I talk to never really left the base or they didn’t have parents who enjoyed exploring new things. Either way, just moving multiple times will teach you to adapt to your surroundings quickly. This is a tool I’m thankful to have.

  • Brats Experience Cyclical Grief and Loss

Being resilient often means becoming used to loss. It sort of comes with the territory. A military family will experience stages of loss throughout their time of being active duty that are cyclical in nature.  These are the stages:

  1. Homeostasis – All is copasetic. Things are normal and everyone has adjusted. Family may grieve “lost time” when family member was not part of certain memories due to TDY or other situations.
  2. New Development – Change is coming and the family may preemptively grieve upcoming losses.
  3. Severance – This is the time of painful goodbyes. The family will often lose friends, family, places, things, and overall sense of balance or normalcy.
  4. Mournfulness – missing the people, places, and things lost.
  5. Adjustment – Trying to create homeostasis again. The family may transition in to a single parent home while the active duty member is TDY. They may adjust to living in a new country or state or even adjust to life post-retirement or post-aging out/marrying and living a civilian life.

Cycle of Grief and Loss
…Which brings us back to homeostasis.
Loss is part of the lifestyle. Fortunately there are now several tools for helping families adjust during these times. (At the bottom I’ve got some great resources for both parents and kids if you’d like to go more in depth.)

  • Brats are Unfairly Judged at Times

I’ve heard a couple unfair comments in my life about my family’s situation. I had a friend’s mom tell me my parents were essentially selfish for making me move around so much. Little did they know that her daughter was incredibly jealous that I went to Paris for my birthday just a year before. Perks of the Brat life. I’ve had a stranger tell me military families were over-privileged because they have “too-good of benefits.” It’s interesting, I didn’t know not seeing your parent for a year or more was a benefit. People say things. You just have to understand that they don’t understand. You just keep doing you.
Besides, no worse judgment is there than when you live in the small circuit community of the AFB and your dad gets a call from one of his colleagues because you’re acting a hot mess in front of God and everyone at the BX and your mom had to drag you out to the parking lot screaming. Yeah… sorry mom and dad. I’m sure his CO heard about it and he probably got a lecture about wrangling his crazy children in. Not to mention my poor mother having to be the bearer of my craziness. My bad. So sometimes the judgment is unfair and sometimes the judgment might have roots in actual events… Either way, you do what works for your family and don’t worry about other people’s evaluations.

  • Brats have Rational Fears

I remember being in 4th grade and being pulled in to a dimly lit classroom after PE with the rest of the students to watch the news as they reported the second plane crash in to the World Trade Center. Every Brat in that room (even being as young as we were) knew that this attack would have further implications for our families. My dad was in Saudi Arabia at the time on a year-long term. My mom and I waited at home that day for the base in Saudi to come off of lock-down and get a phone call of reassurance. The War on Terror would soon mean our loved ones shipping out. Thankfully my dad retired a short time after returning home. No more TDY, praise the Lord!
There were several things I feared as a Brat. I feared my dad not coming home. I feared he would miss important moments in my life like holidays and graduations. I feared him coming home and being different. I feared growing out of the military life and becoming a civilian. But mostly I feared the time right after deployment… the danger zone, the Murphy’s Law of Deployments. Anyone who’s had a love one leave on TDY knows what this is. It goes by many names, but we all know it sucks. A mysterious thing happens right after your loved one leaves: water heaters bust, tires go flat, automatic payment accounts lock you out, kids get lice while mom gets double bronchitis, refrigerators go out, everything goes to pot all the while you are making reassuring phone calls to your loved one saying, “Everything’s fine!”
My personal favorite was one summer when dad was overseas, we came home from the library and saw water running down the driveway from our garage. We busted in to the house to discover our two pet bunny rabbits that we were keeping in the laundry room between the garage and the kitchen (since it was so hot out) had chewed a hole in the water hose to the washing machine. We found them fretting about in the gushing water looking pathetic and guilty. We had to mop up the whole mess afterward and ended up busting a window while moving the chairs from on top of the table back to the ground. It was a rough day… and an even more difficult next few weeks. We coped with Blockbuster movies and pizza. Stuff happens and things go wrong, but you’re strong enough to handle it (with the help of pizza) and you find a way.

  • Life Post-Brat

I don’t have an active dependent ID card anymore. I traded it in for a marriage license in 2014. I married the love of my life and have since lost all of the comfort and security of the life I once knew as a Brat. I regret nothing.
My husband and I considered the active duty life but instead chose to be civilians and pursue other careers. Transitioning was an adjustment. Turns out if you call your local hospital they don’t just set you up with a primary care physician. You actually have to memorize your own social security number. I get antsy every 4 years and have to rearrange my furniture to feel new. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to staying in one place, but I’m extremely satisfied in my life now. I’m so grateful for the Brat life and even more thankful for those who serve today. We truly live in the greatest country on earth.
God Bless the USA,
Charlie Bravo Victor

“Let me take a picture of you with the Royal guard” “No mom take a picture of my skunk beanie baby. This is what I want to remember in 15 years.”

Resources for Parents:
Books for Kids:
H is for Honor: A Military Family Alphabet by Devin Scillian
Night Catch by Brenda Ehrmantraut
While You Are Away by Eileen Spinelli

About the Author
Chelsea Vanderford was born at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and she currently lives in Fort Walton Beach with her husband, Evan, and son, Titan. Chelsea earned a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and specializing in Trauma Treatment, and she’s also a credentialed minister with the Assemblies of God. Her life goals are to counsel women rescued out of human trafficking and to write a book. She loves salt water, black coffee, and really wants to adopt a German Shepherd someday.