Every one of us is a product of our upbringing. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are who we are because of our family, the things we were exposed to, the experiences we lived through, and the people we associated with while growing up. For many people, they lived in the same city their entire childhood, and besides a move within the county or across town, never left the area. They grew up with the same friends each school year, they married a person they had known for most of their life, and even now, still know where most of their friends from their youth are. I am an Army brat and that is not the life I lived. For me, that kind of life sounds foreign to me. It is a life that I am unfamiliar with and a life I find hard to understand. Try as I might, I simply do not have the common, shared experiences and benefits of being from the hometown crowd. Anyone who was a military brat understands exactly what I mean.
So, where did you grow up?
If there is any question that can give anyone grief and enjoyment, this is the question to any Army brat or military brat. We grew up where our parents were stationed. Sometimes, it means that we spent a few years in Harker Heights (Texas), Honolulu, Fayetteville, or any other city near a military base stateside. It also means we may have spent time in places like Germany, Korea, Panama, or a whole host of foreign nations where our military are stationed. We don’t have a hometown and some, myself included, simply choose the place where we lived the longest to give as ours. For me, it is rather difficult to get others to believe that I moved during the middle of my senior year of high school. Being an Army brat, it still does not seem foreign to me. Military brats grow up knowing that our parents didn’t have any control over where we would be living for the next few years or when we would leave. Such decisions were left up to the branch our parents were in. It was simply life as we knew it.
In a way, not having grown up and lived in one place my entire life has been a benefit to me. I do not lament that my childhood friends, many of which I will never see again, are scattered from Hawaii to Germany and everywhere in between. I have had people of every race, every religion, and every sort of political ideology as my friends growing up. Being an Army brat, our friendships were not based on race, sex, or political ideology. Our friendships became based on what we had in common: our interests, continuity (seeing them for more than one school year), or because we saw them as a new person in our school that needed somewhere to fit in; this is especially true if your father or mother was stationed overseas and where everyone attended the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). In these schools, race didn’t matter. Sexual orientation didn’t matter. Religion – or lack thereof – didn’t matter. What was more important was to have meaningful relationships. People were people and we all knew how it felt to be the awkward person; it was not like it was to attend a public school stateside where very few even sought to understand, much less befriend, a military brat.
Being an Army brat gave me…
So many things that I could never imagine not having in my life came from the experience of being an Army brat. As I look around the nation today, I see things from the experiences of being an Army brat and soldier. For those of us who grew up in Germany, we lived in a world where the last thing you wanted was to hear your parent had to see their commander because of your behavior. In our world, we were taught from a young age that everyone was either sir or ma’am and nu-huh and yeah were never said to adults – especially police, teachers, and others in authority positions. We were taught there was no excuse for not standing for the National Anthem or for simply remaining silent while someone else prayed, even if we didn’t believe in God or just did not share their faith. It was not about who was right and who was wrong, but it was about being respectful towards other people, regardless of what we thought was unlikable or different about them. We were taught tolerance for the differences and to focus on the similarities. It was the similarities that served as the basis for our friendships.
My first experience with racism that I remember actually happened in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While attending Pine Forest Junior High School, I was told that as a white student, I was upsetting the “balance” of the school because I was sitting with a handful of students that were anything but white. I remember the day quite well; there were four of us sitting at a table in the corner of the cafeteria – myself, Tony (he was Hispanic), Jeremy (he was African-American), Opal (a girl of mixed racial heritage), and Sam (also of mixed racial heritage). All four of us had a few things in common: we were all in band, we were all considered by the other students as being a bit nerdy, and we were all Army brats. I was told by a few whites that I and my group were causing problems because we were supposed to sit with our own kind. I will never forget the anger, the sick and disgusted feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was sitting with “my own kind.” I would like to say that this was my only experience with racism, however, I have experienced more racism outside the military community than I ever experienced while a dependent living overseas.
The high schools I attended in both Frankfurt and Hanau were so different from the high school I graduated from stateside. Yes, for the most part, there were a few groups of blacks and whites that chose to isolate themselves from the other groups, but this was not what normally happened. In Frankfurt, friendship groups were based on the military neighborhood you lived in and by interests and activities you were involved with. For me, the others I hung out with were in the band, were involved in Scouting, read comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, and had parents that would let them go to the library. In Hanau, the only thing different added to the list were the ones whose parents would allow them to walk to the PX complex. It was a different time, a different society, and for me, one that simply made, and still does, make a lot of sense.
As I have watched the news over the last few months, there has been a macabre fascination with the story emerging out of Ferguson. As an Army brat growing up in a military community, I could never understand wanting to risk everything to steal merchandise from a store; ask any military brat about the post exchange and they will tell you that although we probably could have taken stuff without paying for it, the cost was too high. First, you would have been banned from using those facilities for the rest of the time your father or mother was stationed there. Secondly, the MPs (Military Police) would be giving you a ride in the olive drab Volkswagen van directly to the MP station where they would process you and make a single phone call – not to your parent, but to your parent’s commander. This was just the beginning of your problems. Once your parent’s commander became a part of the process, you could count on your parent’s career being hurt. No promotion, loss of command sponsorship, or in some cases, reassignment stateside and a bar to re-enlistment.
Arguing with MPs never worked well either, although some of us certainly tried. The worse you behaved, the worse you made it on your parents. The worse your behavior impacted your parent’s career, the worse things got at home for you. I cannot imagine the mindset of anyone thinking they could take on a police officer and think they would win. We were taught, as military brats, you do not argue with the MPs, you are polite, you do not confront them, and if you believe they are in the wrong, you calmly and in an unthreatening manner, make your case to them. If that doesn’t work, you ask to speak to the next person up the chain. This whole thing with Michael Brown would have ended so differently had he been taught the lessons that every military brat learned at a young age. As I have watched damage left behind of those rioting all I can do is shake my head. Because of moving every three years we didn’t have a lot of stuff and neither did most of my friends. We were taught you take care of your things and you don’t destroy or steal the things of others. I am sure there are other military brats out there that look at the entire Ferguson situation with some level of disgust.
This morning, as I was preparing for class, I had a discussion with a student who wanted my opinion as to what I think is wrong with our society. I told her that I believe that the thing our nation is missing the most is the answer to many of the ills we are now seeing – there is no tolerance for anything different from what each group holds as normal. We have lost the ability to celebrate our similarities, to overlook the differences, and to put aside the natural desire to only look at race, religion, or sexual orientation, or any other thing used by small-minded people to keep us divided. Now I do have my sexual preferences, I do have a strong faith in God; my faith dictates that I am to love my neighbor as myself. With my upbringing as an Army brat and my belief in God, I do not have the ability to do anything less. Still to this day, I do not care about your skin color, your gender, your sexual identity, or your religion. What I do care about is the kind of person you are and if you are willing to celebrate the similarities, tolerate the differences, and are willing to help me make the world a better place.