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Military Brats Are a Special Breed

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2001 – The term "military brat" is derogatory to some people, but not to Mary Edwards Wertsch and thousands of her closest "brat" friends and acquaintances around the world.

Webster defines "brat" as "a child, especially an impudent, unruly child; scornful or playful term." But that definition doesn't define "military brats." Wertsch said military brats have such values as idealism, antiracism, loyalty, patriotism and honesty.

Not only that, she said, "The vast majority of us really like to be called military brats. We look upon it as an affectionate term with humor built into it.

Military 'Brat' Web Resources

The Internet has a wealth of Web sites military brats can use to connect with each other -- and outsiders can use for insight into the brat lifestyle. Here are some:

  • is home to Military Brats Online. The six-year-old site is a free resource designed to reconnect military brats with each other and their heritage. Its school alumni page at uses pull-down menus to school alumni associations.
  • is the Military Brats Registry, a way for brats to locate other brats from childhood, as well as articles by brats on aspects of the brat experience and links to other sites.
  • is the site for Operation Footlocker, founded by Wertsch and two other brats in 1996. Three footlockers crisscross the country, going from one gathering of brats to another. Brats add memorabilia -- objects or written memories -- to the footlockers. When they are full, they are emptied and their contents are archived for a future brats museum in Wichita. (More on Operation Footlocker...)
  • is the home page of TCK World. In addition to being the host of Operation Footlocker, the site is for "Third Culture Kids." The term refers to brats whose world is neither the military one inside the fence nor the civilian one outside, but a "third."
  • /mtom/, the DoD's Military Teens on the Move site, is designed for teen-agers and provides information on coping with moves, as well as teen advice and a chat room.
  • is Overseas Brats, an organization founded in 1986. It is for U.S. citizens who have attended school overseas. It helps connect overseas high school alumni groups and also offers a discussion forum.
  • is the site of Sons and Daughters in Touch, which provides connection and support to the children of those who died or remain missing as a result of the war in Vietnam.
(The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the United States Department of Defense of the linked web sites, or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and morale, welfare and recreation sites, the U.S. Department of Defense exercises no editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. All links are provided consistent with the purpose of this Department of Defense Web site.)

"It connotes a kind of spunkiness, and spunkiness is what's going to get you through," said Wertsch, 50, author of "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress." "So don't be afraid to use the term 'military brat.' It has various elements of truth in it, about our experiences, and we should be proud of it."

The military is more than a lifestyle, it's a culture with its own norms and values, said Wertsch, executive director of Missourians Against Handgun Violence. She calls it a 'fortress,' with a capital "F," which suggests a togetherness within and a separation from civilian America.

The military's demand for readiness sets it and its people apart from civilian America, she said. The author calls the "all-powerful military mission" the "unseen member of the family."

"The military mission calls all the shots -- tells the family where and when it's going to move, what the conditions are going to be and whether the father or mother is going away and for how long," she said.

The military is not a democracy or an 'anything goes' environment, which also sets it apart from civilian America. The military works on the principle of authority because that's the way things need to be, she said.

The military mentality supports the authoritarian lifestyle, and so kids growing up in it negotiate two different worlds, she said.

"When you're dealing with military kids, you may be dealing with someone who comes out of a very militarized family who has to cope with a very loose civilian context in a civilian school," she said.

She said she discovered some other fascinating things while researching the lives of military brats now ages 20 to 60.

"The biggest thing overall is that the commonalities of our rearing are so powerful," Wertsch said. "It's an identity that supersedes almost all others. It cuts across lines of gender, race and class. It shapes us our entire lives through. You don't stop being a military brat when your parents retire from service life. Retirement is also part of the story."

For example, she said, from that rearing, military brats carry an attitude that's not just nonracist, but anti- racist. She recommends that military brats of all colors work against racism in military and civilian communities.

"This is a very strong value we carry and we can do much good with it," Wertsch said.

The life of military brats is a "mixed bag," she noted. In some ways they're worldly and sophisticated, which civilians might label as "sturdiness."

"Military brats can also be very hard for other people to figure out," Wertsch said. "That's because that kind of worldliness makes people think that we have a higher level of maturity than we sometimes do."

Military brats move around so much that they may not learn some of the hard lessons about dealing with folks, said Wertsch, who today lives in St. Louis in her 43rd house with her professor husband and their two sons.

"If you have an enemy in one place, you may not have to resolve things because you get transferred away," she said. "You may not know how to be a friend over the long term. That creates an immaturity that underlies that outer layer of sophistication and seeming older than your years."

She called coping with loss is the most difficult thing about being a military brat. Military brats are always in a state of either grieving or denial.

Further, Wertsch said, military brats and civilians have different views on the importance of education.

"I don't think military brats are consciously aware of that," she said. The way education plays out is, a military brat goes into a school in the middle of the year and needs to make friends and have a social identity in a hurry, she said.

"So military brats tend to be either a super achiever in school, which gets the attention of their peers and teachers, or they go the opposite direction and join the out groups. There is very little middle ground," Wertsch said. "Fortunately, I believe most military brats fall into the super-achievers category. They come in aiming to succeed. They've developed very high expectations for themselves."

Military values are what Wertsch treasures most from her own experience. "Military values are the things that separate us most from the civilian world," she said. "Idealism -- military brats tend to be very idealistic people. We've been raised in an environment where you do things for principle, to support an ideal."

'Operation Footlocker': Testament to a Mobile Lifestyle

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

"Operation Footlocker" sounds like a military operation, but it's not. It's a celebration of "military brats'" shared cultural identity, according to Mary Edwards Wertsch.

Operation Footlocker started in 1996 as a "mobile monument" by Wertsch, of St. Louis, and two other brats, Reta Jones Nicholson of Columbia, Mo., and Gene Moser of Hampton, Va. Three footlockers crisscross the country to brat school reunions and similar events. So far this year, they've traveled to Charleston, S.C.; Fort Monroe, Va.; San Francisco; Wichita, Kan.; and Fort Gordon, Ga.

Hundreds of military brats have donated their childhood treasures at footlocker appearances. Some of the donations so far include a worn, cherished teddy bear, post-World War II military scrip printed in Japan, books, diaries, and lots of stories, memories and photographs.

The items will be displayed in a future four-building museum-archive complex in Wichita. The city earmarked five acres of land in its Museums on the River district in a 99-year lease at $1 per year.

"We've dedicated the site for the museum, but construction hasn't started because we're still in the fund-raising phase," said Tom Drysdale, president of the American Overseas Schools Historical Society and the driving force behind the museum. He said the goal is to raise $10 million to $13 million.

The retired educator with the Department of Defense schools said he's already received more than 50,000 pounds of papers, photographs, trophies and other artifacts from American schools around the world.

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