A Childhood in the Military or What Makes Military Brats Different

Lt. H.E. Olsen in 1917
Lt. H.E. Olsen in 1917 | Source

Military and Civilian Worlds

The career military is different from what military people refer to as "the civilian world." My father and his four brothers were part of that military world, almost from the day they were born. It is a world I too was born into and grew up in.

The sons of a Norwegian immigrant who joined the American Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1880, and rose to be a commissioned officer during the Spanish American War, the five Olsen brothers all went to Annapolis and went on to have distinguished Naval careers. Their father loved his adopted country and the American Navy so much that sending all five boys to The United States Naval Academy became his life's ambition and the achievement of this goal his proudest moment. How he managed to get congressional appointments for all five of them I will never know, but he did. My Uncle Clarence even got a Presidential appointment.

My mid-western mother married into the military life (not an easy thing) and I grew up in it. I was an only child. Since we moved every two years or so, I went to nine different schools before I graduated from high school. In fact I went to three different high schools in four years. My four years as a university undergraduate, were the most I spent in any one school in my life.

In spite of the fact that my father had four brothers in the Navy,and I, therefore,had numerous cousins who were also military brats, we didn't really get to know each other growing up because we were always scattered all over the country at different duty stations. There were no family reunions and meetings were rare, being confined to weddings and funerals. My parents relied on occasional phone calls and annual Christmas letters to keep family bonds intact. I do remember small gifts under the Christmas tree every year for me from cousins I knew only by name, and I also remember being required to send each one of them a thank you note after the holiday was over, but for the most part, the Navy was my family and the other military brats (or Navy Juniors as we were required to call ourselves) were my quasi siblings.

Wherever we went there was a base and special activities for us Navy kids. In every new school, I always encountered at least a few kids I had known at some previous duty station. We knew each other, stuck together and tended to help each other out. We all knew that we would leave the school we were in and probably not see the friends we made there ever again-- but we knew that we were stuck with each other and that we would doubtless encounter each other again in some other corner of the world.

The five Olsen brothers in 1938 ( standing) with their parents and sister( seated)
The five Olsen brothers in 1938 ( standing) with their parents and sister( seated) | Source

What Makes A Military Brat Different

Moving every two years and going to nine different schools before graduating from high school is not unique to kids growing up in the military. The children of traveling salesmen, corporate executives,diplomats and journalists move around as much or more than kids whose parents are in the military, but the military childhood has a certain regimentation and rigidity to it that sets it apart. It is based on battle and the fact that while salesmen or diplomats can get into difficulties, people in the military are dealing with life and death on a daily basis.

The career military exists in order to make war. War is the product, and the people of the military go to work to learn how to annihilate the enemy. This means that Daddy (and these days Mommy too, if she is in the military) is trained to kill or be killed and following from that fact is the underlying, never mentioned idea that when the military parent goes to work in the morning (or goes off in a ship for six months or practices landing a jet plane on the deck of a pitching and rolling aircraft carrier) he or she just might not come home that night. I have an aunt and a cousin who both lost Naval aviator husbands to " training accidents" in peacetime.

The tension that comes along with being attached to the military is not something that is often mentioned, but it is always there. Military spouses and children ( or as we were called in my day, " dependents" live with that reality every moment of every day.

The reality is there because every branch of the military is at its root a war machine that exists to defend the nation. Thus discipline is key and the chain of command is primal. Nobody is sitting around examining the philosophical underpinnings of a command decision in the heat of battle. The General gives the order and the Corporal obeys it. That's the way it has to be if the army is to be efficient. The only possible answer to someone in authority is " yes sir"

Thus growing up in a military family means growing up in an authoritarian atmosphere. It means learning stoicism and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve. It means putting your personal needs after the needs of the "unit" It means a lifestyle that requires much in the way of personal sacrifice and does not encourage intellectual curiosity or too much introspection. There are no nuances or intellectual shades of grey in the military. Things are good or bad; black or white. People are enemies or friends-- us or them-- military or civilian. Shades of grey cannot exist if the fighting unit is to perform at optimum efficiency and if orders are to be obeyed instantly in combat, without question. Everything is attuned to this reality and every member of a military family, down to the family dog is expected to do their part.

A Childhood in the MIlitary Casts A Long Shadow

I have lived most of my adult life in the " civilian world" but still, my childhood in the military has cast a long shadow on my personality and life decisions. Mary Edwards Wertsch whose groundbreaking, 1991 book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, is the definitive work on the subject is the official biographer of the military brat. I only came upon her work recently and her book gave me lots of food for thought. So many of the miitary brat characteristics she talks about are ingrained in me that I could barely believe it.

For starters, I always dread the innocuous question " where are you from?" because I don't have a simple answer. I moved around so much as a kid that to answer truthfully requires a detailed explanation( which nobody really wants) and just picking one of the places I lived or saying something neutral like" everywhere and nowhere" feels evasive.It turns out all us military brats feel that way.

Then, there is the sense of being open to different cultures and alternative ways of doing things along with the feeling of always being an outsider. I used to say that I am someone who could find herself in a Yurt in outer Mongolia and within ten minutes I would be seated cross legged on the ground drinking yak's milk with the Mongolians and they would be saying:"hey-- she's just like us" but of course, both they and I would know that I am not and never will be an actual Mongolian.

Then, there is the tendency to think of all relationships as temporary and to have difficulty making lasting commitments plus a desire for self sacrifice and a certain naïve idealism concerning the rewards that self sacrifice will bring.

And last but not least, there is the fact that to this day, when I set foot on a military base anywhere in the world, those grey buildings, barracks and guardhouses make me feel like I have come home.

Reading Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, was a kind of homecoming in itself. I never realized that I belonged to a bona-fide subculture or that military brats from anywhere are my tribe It gave me a sense of real belonging and a lot of food for thought and the next time someone asks me where I am from, I know what I am going to say. I will just say " I am a military brat, and that will explain everything. If you are a fellow brat, or have any interest in finding out more about what it was like to grow up as a military dependent, scroll down and order the book from Amazon, right from this Hub. It will answer lots of questions for you.

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Comments 33 comments

CR Rookwood profile image

CR Rookwood 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

Wow, awesome personal hub, and I love your family photo. Your Olsen aunt was a real knockout!

I don't envy the challenges of kids growing up in military families as you did, but I appreciate your candor in sharing your experience and the book reference. Thumbs up!


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Glad you liked it Rookwood--yes that was my aunt Anna-- she married a Naval officer-- a classmate of my father's I think...reading that book was quite an experience I must say-- there is good news about growing up in the military too. It makes you very good at meeting new people and functioning with strangers in new situations. You kind of have a head start on most people in some ways -- ahh well, thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 4 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Robie, this hub is so excellent! I love the family photos and your personal description of the challenges of growing up as a child in a military family. I can see how the influences of such an upbringing would definitely influence your personality - reading your first hand experiences was amazing, and gave me new insight! :) Bookmarking and sharing. Best, Steph


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Awww Steph-- thanks for leaving such a great comment. I'm glad you liked the hub and I'm impressed at how quickly you came to comment on it. Thanks as always for the wonderful support-- much appreciated....The photo of my grandfather was taken in 1917. He was born in 1860 and went to sea at the age of 15. What a life he must have had. I wish I had known him, but he died when I was two years old.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Fascinating read about a subject we are all aware of but few understand. Thank you for your open honesty about your life and the hardships, and rewards, inherent in being a military brat!


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

and thank you, billybuc, for such a nice comment. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this hub and that you took the time to comment on it-- much appreciated.


Gylfi 4 years ago

Awesome article robie2, keep it up.


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks Gylfi:-)


Lawrence Da-vid profile image

Lawrence Da-vid 4 years ago

Having been one of those Military parents of supposed military brat's, the following are true. The male influence in the home is missing for the most part. "Mom" must be the leader, diciplinarian, source of love and consideration. Instead of being the "normal" mom, a military "mom" as triple responsibility....mom...pop....everything. What is especially bad, is when mom works in effort to keep everything together. A military "nanny" comes in handy. "House Boss" was one of those women. Raising 2 children in the absence of 'you know who.' Fortunately there was a high sembelance of order maintained.....almost identical if the Father image was at home.

Choices were made early in marriage. Known was the fact that the Father was military completely. Mother was employed and preferred it that way. CHOICES!! Fortunately, "bosses" mom was a military wife. Without hesitation she took over as role model along with mom. The 2 children were adopted by the "boss" with my signature, understanding fully, the ramifications.

Don't ask me how, but both turned out to be college students, well behaved, and do honor their grandmother and mother and sometimes....Me! The only individual in the house that didn't appreciate my presence was "dog." Every time I arrived home from overseas, I got bitten. My "lot" in life for being absent so much. Fortunately though, my last 10 years of government service, were CONUS based at hometown, and my presence was continuous.


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks Lawrence, for a great comment and for sharing a bit of your own experience. You remind me of something I forgot to put in the hub-i.e. the long absences made necessary by deployments and the effect not only on the kids but on the parents trying to hold the family together. It isn't easy, especially with the dog growling at you every time you walk in the door LOL


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 4 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Although my father and all of my uncles served in the Army or Navy, they were never career military. My father was a captain in the army signal corps; the others were enlisted men. To Billybuc's point, the military was a part of my family's life, but never in a way that gave me any understanding about the life of a "brat."

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences, thus opening a door to understanding a way of life I can truly say I never gave much thought to. In fact, I found your words so interesting, I read them twice. :) Up, up, up!


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks ST-- I think there are lots more military brats these days what with National Guard troops and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-- we no longer have a draft and do have a larger professional, career military with both men and women serving so the number of kids brought up in professional military homes is, I imagine, on the rise.I think thee rest of us know very little about the special circumstances of these kids so thanks for reading and commenting and even reading twice:-)


ImKarn23 profile image

ImKarn23 4 years ago

I loved reading this hub - every word. It shone a light in places i know very little about. I think that 9 schools before graduating would definitely suck at the time - but in the long run - probably give you a leg up on 'civilian' kids. I imagine you have developed unique socialization skills that allows you to fit in almost anywhere and be somewhat comfortable. You probably adapt better to different or difficult situations as well. I understand the higher 'every-day' stress levels - as i have anxiety issues from being a high level competitive gymnast who left her country at 14 and trained 6/hrs/day. i was alone, scared, under pressure - and failure was not an option. In the end - i believe these experiences both put us ahead of the game! would you agree? GREAT JOB!


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

I totally agree with you ImKarn and thank you so much for your really insightful comment. Thanks for sharing a bit of your own life as well--the ex-pat experience is not so different from the military childhood experience. In fact the two overlap in many ways-- but I cannot imagine how difficult the stress of high level athletics must be--kudos to you on that one:-)


Lawrence Da-vid profile image

Lawrence Da-vid 4 years ago

To be more succinct, a man that chooses the military life, has a warrior mentality. Those remaining in military service are dedicated warriors. Women that choose these "warrior types" Must adjust their lives and their mentality, to face whatever happens. If, for some reason, a choice is made to introduce children to this lifestyle, it must be done with caution, and consideration of possible ramifications. Absence of the father image whether from deployment, or demise, must be dealt with accordingly. The same mentality involves Law enforcement as well. It takes much consideration.


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Well said, Lawrence-- and how right you are. That's it in a nutshell.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

What an insightful peak into military life from one born into it! Bravo! Despite being shuffled from one duty station to another and thanks to the military's adherence to uniformity, I too would find it comforting to be able to feel at home on a base anywhere in the world. Even kids whose parent's civilian career requires moving frequently will never have that!

I do, however, wonder why you didn't mention your grandfather would've counted SIX sons at Annapolis if Son #4 hadn't died in a fire at the military school he was attending in preparation for entering the Naval Academy...

Also, your Aunt Anna deserves a bit more credit **in the hub** for her part in realizing her father's goal of his family being "totally Annapolis" by exercising the only option a female had toward that end at that time - marrying an Annapolis graduate. Embracing the belief that a daughter's husband becomes one's son, then technically SIX of your gf's sons WERE Naval Academy grads.

(I have to ask. Did the Olsen Clan get a discount on brass polish? lol!)

Voted up and awesome! ;D


Pamspages profile image

Pamspages 4 years ago from Virginia

What wonderful photos and memories!


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Glad you enjoyed it Pam--lovely to see you and thanks for reading and commenting. BTW my sojourn in Paris took place smack in the middle of those four university years--m I went to France for what was supposed to be the summer and liked it so much I decided to stay for a while semester, I easily got a leave of absence from the school and voila-- one of the best decisions I ever made


T4an profile image

T4an 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

Excellent hub robie2. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Voted up!


T4an profile image

T4an 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

p.s. Billybuc sent me and I am so glad he did!


vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago

Billybuc sent me, too lol I live in Germany and listen to the Eagle on the radio every day - "your favorite station serving those who serve us or America's best!" The military community here is very well organized, they pay a lot of attention to family life, schooling, and connecting military mums and their kids. I think that's awesome. The answer "I'm a military brat" does explain a lot! Great hub, voted up!

P.S. I love those vintage photos from your collection. The Olsen brothers' sister (seated on the right?) was a beautiful lady.


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Ohmygosh-- all these great comments have piled up here since the last time I checked. Thank you all for your kind words and now let me see:

cmichele-slp -- you make me homesick and of course I feel like we are family just from your comment Tinsel-- OMG tinsel-- well my parents fought over that and one year they both got so drunk they stood at the other end of the room and threw the tinsel on the tree from across the room-- other years it was one strand at a time. You won't be surprised to know that as an adult civilian I loathe tinsel and don't ever put it on my Christmas trees-- never have, never will -- that's my tinsel history in a nutshell:-)

T4an and Vox vocis-- I'm so glad Billybuc sent you over here too. Really happy to meet you both and thanks for commenting--glad you like the photos too.


Made profile image

Made 4 years ago from Finland

This is a very interesting hub and you really captured me with your story. I have to thank billybuc for sending me here. You had a totally different childhood than me. I'm sure you can handle different situations in life better than other people thanks to what you've seen and been through. Did your father speak Norwegian with you? Voted up and interesting!


KDuBarry03 4 years ago

Very touching and moving! You share some very deep and powerful lessons and experiences that I really enjoy :) I agree with Made, I have to thank billybuc for sending me the link. Definitely voted up :)


robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Glad you enjoyed it K and thanks for the up vote-- hmmmm I think I owe Billybuc a debt of gratitude too for sending all your wonderful people my way.


rmcleve profile image

rmcleve 4 years ago from Woodbridge, VA

Love it, robie2! I grew up as a military/DOD brat, and have only recently begun to realize how much that influenced my identity.

I watched the Donna Musil documentary clipped in your hub with my Mom, and it creeped me out from the uncanny level of accuracy.

Wonderful story, too. Please let me know if you'd ever be willing to share your story with a larger audience.


robie2 profile image

robie2 3 years ago from Central New Jersey Author

Gosh rmcleve-- don't know how I missed responding to your excellent comment, but here I am now to say thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it. It took me a long time to realize that we military brats are a distinct " tribe" and our shared experience gives us a lot in common.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Every word you said resonated with my military "dependent" upbringing, from the multiple schools, constant relocations, fear of people asking where I was from, etc.. You've given me a great insight to a book that I'll be reading to help me in processing my roots. Also, I hope you don't mind that I'll be putting a link to your article in my hub about my Dad - A Generous Slice of Navy Life. Thank you. I feel as if we were stationed on the same base.


MonkeyShine75 profile image

MonkeyShine75 19 months ago from Los Angeles, California

My dad's retired Air Force, and we've lived in Germany, Italy, Japan, and a couple of more. My dad retired from the military as a CMSgt. I am currently going to a University in the US that the AF is paying for


robie2 profile image

robie2 19 months ago from Central New Jersey Author

HI Monkeyshine75....thanks for stopping by. Always good to see a fellow military brat :-) Hope you are enjoying college life and having fun being back home.


MonkeyShine75 profile image

MonkeyShine75 19 months ago from Los Angeles, California

Thank you Robie, it's nice to meet other military brats.

I am so happy being home, and I am having fun in school. I live in the dorms, and I'm in my freshman year. This is so different than high school for sure, and I thought it would be about the same. Life is good

Thanks for creating this hub so we can all meet

Good luck in life :)


robie2 profile image

robie2 19 months ago from Central New Jersey Author

Thanks Monkeyshine :-) back atcha for sure :-)

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