written by Rona Simmons

A young military brat Rona Simmons dancing with father

Simmons aboard Italian ocean liner with father

I’m a brat.

My father was a retired, career-military lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force. He served in World War II as a fighter pilot, exited after the war, but returned to the military after the Korean War and the birth of his first two children. He remained in the Air Force for twenty-four years and raised four “brats” while serving.

Years have passed, maybe decades, since I thought about being a military brat.

Recently, I canvassed other so-called “brats” to learn about their experiences and compare them with my own. Although the eleven of us hail from different military branches and formative years that span the 1950s to the 1980s, we have much in common.

When brats are asked the seemingly simple question, “Where are you from?” we answer with a version of, “Well, ah,” followed by a long pause.

In my case, I say, “Well, ah, [pause] I was born in California.”

Before the asking party has a moment to think I have any lasting association with The Golden State, I continue, saying. “But I only lived there nine months.” If their quizzical look persists, I add, “I was a military brat.” That seems to suffice, but pigeon-holes me.

So, what makes a brat a brat?

#1 We Have No “Roots”

Everyone I spoke with agreed they grew up with a sense of being “different.” At some point, we realized that not being from the town we were in at the time was a large part of that difference. As Jim Roberts remembered, everyone in the small town in West Virginia where he lived knew everyone else. “When my grandmother looked at someone,” he said, “she could see their entire family tree.” Jim left me with the vivid image of his grandmother looking at me or any one of us with a very puzzled expression.

#2 We Can Pick Up and Move at a Moment’s Notice

List of Military BratsBut not being from “there” also meant the tiny roots we spread were easily uprooted and replanted, for some of us every couple of years.

As we settled into a new home—wherever the military decided to send us—we knew that home, too, was temporary. We were “there” until the day our parents said we were leaving. Then, the movers came, packed up our belongings, placed them into a giant Allied Moving Van, and drove away. The family filed into our station wagon and set off with games of “I Spy” and a route map to the first in a series of orange-roofed Howard Johnson motels. Later, when my father took an assignment in Europe, we had the privilege of crossing the Atlantic in first class on an Italian ocean liner. For four years, we had maids, a cook, and a gardener. But my parents kept us grounded, and we did not come away with a sense of entitlement.

#3 We Make Friends Quickly

But moving often meant we had known no one for more than a year or two. With each move, we had to make friends quickly, which wasn’t as simple as it sounds for everyone.

A young Debbie Morris with her father

Morris with father

Debbie Morris remembers, “We were always the new kid in class and dressed and looked different—having adopted whatever the customs were from where we had moved. We had difficulties fitting in with the established cliques.”

When I met my college roommate, I remember thinking, “She’ll be my new best friend.” Soon, however, I learned I was just her roommate. Her true best friend was back in Houston, where she was born and grew up.

As a consequence, we were our own best friends, which may have made some of us more introverted and others more outgoing. But when we did make friends, it was with a genuine desire for camaraderie no matter how long it lasted. Having spent much of his childhood with other brats, Bernie Lee added a slightly different perspective. “We grew to trust our [military brat] friends,” he says, “and had each other’s back.”

#4 We Mind Our Elders

Maybe our childhood friends had met a military brat or two and found them to have an attitude.

Maybe that child was ill-mannered, immature, spoiled. But us? No.

We didn’t live in a household like Ben Meecham’s in The Great Santini, but we knew the answer to an adult’s question was, “Yes, Sir,” or “No, Ma’am.” And we knew not to ask “Why,” or plead, “But . . .” No meant No. Period. Riley Gazzaway recalled, “You got up when you were supposed to get up, you ate when you were supposed to eat, did your chores to the best of your ability, and you never questioned your mother.”

#5 We Embrace Differences

Difficulties aside, being raised in a military family had its upsides. One was the opportunity to live in different places. We were exposed to other cultures with their own ways of living and thinking—whether stateside or abroad.

Bernard Lee Sr. in his Army uniform

Lee, Bernard Sr. in the Army

At home, race played a much subtler role in our lives than it did in the civilian world.

Bernie Lee, who is Black, says his father left the military for a short period, but could not find a comparable position as a civilian and so returned to the service. Bernie attended both integrated and segregated schools and lived mostly in diverse communities, once in a fourplex with Irish, Italian and Hispanic neighbors.

Jim, who spent much time as a child on military bases, says he never knew there was such a thing as race. Then, when his family moved to a new town, he noticed signs above public water fountains designating them for use by race. It flew in the face of everything he’d been taught or experienced. “On or off base, everywhere we went, everyone had been the same.”

Regardless of our environment, we learned the similarities between people we met and respected the differences. Given the opportunity we embraced foreign customs and learned a foreign language. Living abroad gave us a better sense of what was going on in the world. That awareness stayed with us into adulthood and made us more informed, curious, and well-rounded than most people we meet.

#6 We Miss Our Fathers and Are in Awe of Our Mothers

Growing up in an era without a major shooting war, I was fortunate to move with my family when my father was reassigned, even overseas. He was never absent from home.

Steve Arnold's father in his Navy uniform

Arnold YNC Arnold

Others, like Steve Arnold, weren’t so fortunate. His father was often at sea and so he missed out on many father-son activities.. “Five hundred men might be away at a time, so everyone on base was in the same situation. With five hundred wives left behind, the Navy mothers had a large support group around them.”

Still, Steve never questioned the military family life and never thought of his father’s absence as a hardship. He wrote to his father and received letters and photos in return. What could be more fun for a child, after all, than to welcome your father home, his arms full of gifts from faraway places?

One of my aha moments from these conversations was realizing how important my mother was to our upbringing. Our mothers had to fill both parents’ shoes. They had to handle the household finances and take charge of getting children to school, to doctors, and to extracurricular events, like today’s “soccer moms,” but on steroids.

For example, Alec Fraser’s mother found herself faced with taking him and his sister to Europe on her own. With one young child in each hand, she traveled to New York, crossed the Atlantic, arrived in Germany, and somehow found the right train to their destination.

Mothers also had to meet the service’s often unspoken but none-the-less significant expectations for military wives. They had to participate in the women’s club or officers’ wives’ club, entertain, and be capable of welcoming a corporal, colonel, or general into their home.

Most of all, they had to maintain discipline at home when their husbands were away. Sue New’s mother filled that role without blinking, but had to take charge permanently after Sue’s father was killed in action in Vietnam. “She was a good disciplinarian,” Sue says. One life lesson Sue learned from her was, “If you did something, you did it the right way. If you didn’t, you did it again.”

Note: Those I interviewed grew up before mothers became the career-military parent and endured long periods separated from their families. I leave it to the next generation of brats to weigh in on the impact of growing up under a male-led household.

#7 We Will Always Be Brats

Growing up military leaves a deep imprint that’s never quite erased. We are and will be nimble, respectful, and informed. In a sense, we’ll always be military brats.

Father and son military men shaking hands next to a plane

Gibson with father

Debbie Morris admitted, “I still want to move every three years, and I’m a very good packer. But now, I just rearrange the furniture.”

Others observe that we have also tried to share our values—our love for our country and respect for others—with our children.

Chris Fraser said he advised his children to do what they do best, whether or not they joined the military. But, if they joined, he said (with a chuckle), he advised them to become an officer. “Life’s a lot better as an officer.”

Several of those I spoke with followed in their father’s footsteps. Bill Gibson served and had the privilege of being his father’s pilot on four separate occasions, three in Korea and one at home in the US.

Terry Wade said one of the proudest moments of his life was being sworn into the Coast Guard by his father.

In turn, both Bill and Terry passed on their fond memories and pride in service to their children. Bill’s son joined the military and served as a JAG officer. Terry’s daughter served five years in the Navy, and his son eight in the Army.

Military brat Terry Wade's father in his Coast Guard uniform

Wade’s father

Today, the phrase “military brat” is on the outs, nudged aside by the more respectful “military family” and “military children.” And today’s military brats seem to have more support than we ever had: social media groups, a museum (militaryfamilymuseum.org), and a whole month of the year (April) dedicated to them.

For me, the children of our military will always be different, something they will cherish. Most of all, my fellow “brats” will always hold a special place in my heart.

Rona Simmons is author of several books, including Images from World War II: The Art of Jack Smith (Cyrilla, 2016), The Other Veterans of World War II: Stories from Behind the Front Lines (Kent State University Press, 2020),  A Gathering of Men (Koehler Books, 2022), and the forthcoming No Average Day: The 24 Hours of October 24, 1944. She also hosts and manages author events and literary festivals in her “home” state of Georgia. She can be reached at ronasimmons.com.