I belong to an online social media group that is focused on Military BRATs…the children of military families. Several comments where we commiserated over our shared culture got me to thinking, as things often do, and started me writing down the bits and pieces noted here.
The name may sound derogatory to non-BRATs, but it is very much worn as a badge of honor amongst those of us belonging to this invisible subculture. No one can say exactly where the term originates, but many suggest it came from an old status label standing for British Regiment Attached Traveler, and it was assigned to families who were traveling abroad with a soldier. Eventually, it simply referred to children of military parents. But the term stuck, and was adopted in many places around the world, including in the U.S.
There are many shared attributes that bind BRATs together, most notably that our parents served in the military and were subject to the needs and wants of the service. This meant constantly moving every couple of years, losing any friendships you had developed along with any real sense of home or place that you belonged to. Changing homes and schools, missing family get-togethers and parties and likely moving off to foreign countries where everything is turned upside down.
Indeed, the hardest question a BRAT gets asked is “where are you from”. While this seems an easy question for most, even after 6 decades I still answer with “well, I am an Army Brat, so I lived all over, but I lived the longest in Ohio.
I was born at Fort Knox, Kentucky at Ireland Army Hospital, and lived there for less than a year. Dad then got orders for Germany, but dependents were not allowed as President Eisenhower thought it was still too dangerous for families as the Cold War was in full swing with the USSR.
These were the years after the Berlin Blockade and airlift. The Iron Curtain was a real thing: the Berlin Wall was built while we were living in West Germany and the Cuban Missile Crisis had everyone on edge in Europe. My father’s job was to patrol the Bavarian/Czechoslovakian border and stand in the way of any Soviet aggression.
So we then moved to Ohio to live with my father’s parents John M and Nannie in Dayton, where my brother Greg was born at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
Eisenhower eventually relented, and off we went to join dad in West Germany. My first plane trip was flying over the Atlantic, first to Ireland. I distinctly remember mom pointing out the lush green patchwork of fields below us and Greg screaming bloody murder because his ears were giving him fits on the decent. Mom was a real trooper packing up everything with 2 young kids, dealing with all of this on her own.
Of course, when we arrived there was no housing for US families, so we ended up living above a Bavarian Gaust Haus…Guest House…a tavern. This is the kind of experience BRATs get normalized to. We thought there was nothing unusual about being babysat by Momma Myer, the proprietor of the tavern who barely spoke any English. We were not exactly thrilled about drinking our Orange Fanta warm, as she forbid children to drink cold beverages, but we got used to it.
When one of us got sick, she would pile all of us, including her grandchildren, in the big feather bed to be sick at the same time. This is how I had Chicken Pox, Measles, Mumps and who knows what else before I was 5. Is German Measles just measles if you are already in Germany?
I was forbidden to go downstairs to the bar alone of course, but when all the whooping and hollering and yodeling started I would creep down the stairs far enough to watch all the fun until mom or Momma Meyer caught up with me.
When dad was off patrolling the border, sometimes for days on end, mom would pack Greg in a stroller, with me on a leash, and we would catch a bus or train to a PX for some shopping as she didn’t drive. Using the German metro system was an adventure of its own with 2 kids. We lived above Momma Myer’s for about a year until housing was built.
All the social activities were with military friends and families. Company Christmas dinners and holiday spreads, parties with dad’s army buddies, that kind of socializing. Momma Meyer and her family were the only civilian friends we had.
When housing was finally available, we moved up to the 3rd floor of an apartment style building. It was a long haul up and down all those the steps for short legs, so I would yell up at mom for our toys and she would toss them out the window down to us.
Another favorite past time for 2 young boys was peeing on the steam radiator next to the toilet in the bathroom for the sizzle and steam. Mom wasn’t as big a fan as we were.
It was also very exciting when I got a Handy Andy toolbox for Christmas. It had all the essentials: hammer, saw, screwdriver, pliers, square and so on. Now, these were not harmless plastic toys back in those days…everything was made of metal and the saw had real teeth.
Being an adventurous and curious kid, I had each tool systematically taken away as I explored my newly discovered handyman skills on table legs, chairs, my brother’s head and most exciting…pounding the screwdriver in the standard German 220 volt wall socket and shutting down power in the whole apartment. I still miss that toolbox…I still have the triangle, my oldest possession along with my Bavarian hat.
So after we moved into the military housing at Christensen Barracks in Bindlach, along came Laurie, born at the US Army Hospital in Nuremburg. If you’re keeping track that’s 3 kids in 3 years in 3 different places and 4 moves so far.
One of the interesting things about Christensen Barracks apartment where we lived is that there was still a big pile of demolition material just behind our building. This was from a WWII Luftwaffe airfield at Bayreuth-Bindlach that had been razed…remember this was still only 15 years after WWII and Germany was still rebuilding. It was absolutely off-limits to us due to the unstable piles and oh, the odd unexploded bomb or two from when it was targeted by the Allies. So, of course it had a magnetic attraction for a young boy, and I had my behind fanned a time or three for being out of bounds. Not too many civilian kids have to worry much about unexploded ordinance.
Being in on-post housing meant we were much closer to a PX (Post Exchange for you civies), so it was a relatively short jaunt for mom and us. This is when she started collecting 45’s to play on our brand new Grundig/Telefunken Hi-Fi stereo console. It was done in beautiful black walnut with a receiver, record turntable and stereo reel to reel tape machine.
Mom bought whatever was new and available, so I became schooled at a young age with Elvis, Del Shannon, Ray Charles, Bobby Vinton, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, you name it…some of my favorites were Apache by the Shadows, The Stripper by David Rose, Hit the Road Jack by Ray Charles and Moon River by Henry Mancini. There were so many, and I am so grateful I was exposed to so many tunes at such an early age I even learned to sing Musse I Denn (Wooden Heart) with Elvis in German.
We lived in Germany for almost 3 years and still picnicked with our German friends Mamma Meyer and her daughter’s family, including her daughter Karin, my first girl-friend. But, duty called and we didn’t stay anywhere too long.
We corresponded with them with letters and Christmas cards for a few years after we were back in the US, but eventually lost track.
I recently joined a German Facebook Group from Bayreuth and worked with the German members to figure out exactly where that old Gaust Haus was. Today it is a beauty shop. Pretty cool to track it down.
Dad’s next orders were back to the US, where the Army was interested in testing a new theory in mobile warfare, Air Mobility using helicopters. Used mostly for medivac in the Korean War, the generals were now interested in taking the war directly to where ever the enemy was at the time. They gathered a bunch of veteran warriors and assembled them in the 11 Airborne, renaming it the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Benning, GA.
We moved into on-post housing right away in Georgia, a two-level townhouse style apartment building. Our building had a short patio in the back, a few feet of grass, and then it dropped down an embankment to swampland. As a kid I loved it, dad taught me what snakes were poisonous, what poison ivy and oak looked like and to stay away from the big snapping turtles if I wanted to keep my fingers. Greg and I would wander those swamps for hours looking for critters.
You can see the drop-off to the swamp just past the fence. Not much of a yard to play in!
Moving in we instantly had neighborhood pals that were all BRATs as well, there was instant camaraderie as we all had parents doing the same kind of thing. There were a few neighborhood bullies, as there are anywhere you go, but we learned how to stay away from them most of the time.
I remember one kid whose nickname was Sweety, he had a switchblade knife that he would flip into the ground, pull out, and lick the blade to show everyone how tough he was. It worked on this 5-year-old pretty well. Looking back, Sweety must have had a tough life at home, I remember his dad chasing him down and thrashing him badly all the way home. Of course, he had to take it out on us for seeing him crying the next time he caught up with us.
One of the other things that was not all that common in civilian neighborhoods back then was the different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in our BRAT neighborhoods. I played with Black, Hispanic, Filipino, Puerto Rican and other diverse children and didn’t think too much about our differences…it was more about our similarities with being military kids whose fathers did the same things.
The one noticeable thing was how the rank of our fathers came into the picture more than color as we got older. Officers were typically in a different area from the enlisted, but you would get a warning about playing with kids with higher ranking NCO fathers. It was not good when you beat the Sergeant Major’s kid at something and he went home crying. Dad might have something to answer to with his heels locked the next day.
Luckily, dad was a higher ranking NCO at the time, so I might have pulled rank as a kid once or twice. I did enjoy going through the barracks with him once in a while as he checked on his soldiers. Strutting along behind him as he expertly tore a private’s bed apart, or kicked over a trash can gave me a sense of importance.
The powers that be decided the unit he was going to Vietnam with all had to be airborne qualified. Now, dad was a tough old bird and by then had made it through WWII as an infantryman in the Pacific, Korea and Ranger school. His knees were not what they used to be, but he went through it. One of the things his unit did for airborne school was to shave their heads down to a nub. So, of course his boys got a similar treatment. None of that 60’s hippy hair for an Airborne Ranger’s sons.
Buzz jobs all around!
I started kindergarten at Fort Benning. I remember the school house was just a three-room building made out of an old barracks. They had just put-up walls to divide the big open bay into separate rooms. The thing is, the bathrooms and drinking fountain were at one end and there was no hallway, so to do your business or get a drink you had to walk through the other classrooms, which was a constant source of entertainment.
I also remember one of my first traumatic life events: I had a Bozo the Clown lunchbox that I left on the bus and was unconsolable until the bus driver gave it back the next day.
Bozo lunch box
A short time later brother Phil was born at Martin Army Hospital at Fort Benning. That’s 4 kids, all born in different states or countries with 5 moves in 5 years. Moving around this much starts to build a sense of flexibility and independence that most civilian kids are oblivious to. I came to expect a move, not to settle in one place
It does not build a sense of “this is where my roots are” and perhaps it is why, as the oldest with the most memories of this nomadic life, I am the only one that has moved farther than a 30 mile circle from where the family is now centered in Ohio.
Dad’s unit was reflagged from the 11th Air Assault Division to the 1st Bn 8th Cavalry “Jumping Mustangs” (Airborne-Airmobile-Air Assault) in the 1st Cavalry Division. They then got orders for Vietnam and everything changed for our family.
Dad reading letters from home in his tent at An Khe Vietnam.
Up until then, Vietnam was a place no one had really heard much about and few knew where it even was on a map. The 1st Cav Division was the first divisional sized element to deploy to Vietnam, a place that would be so important in everyone’s lives for the next 10 years.
What it meant to my family was another move…something that was totally expected and by then normal…but the new embellishment to the game was that dad wasn’t coming with us. He was going to this odd sounding place called Vietnam to fight bad guys and we wouldn’t see him for a long, long time…and he might not even come back. We were used to him being gone for days, even weeks at a time when he was out in the field or patrolling the border, but I couldn’t fathom what a year was at that young age.
They said the usual cliché things you see in all the movies: “You are the man of the house now”, “You have to behave and listen to your mother”, “You have to be a big boy and help take care of your brothers and sister”, ”I have to go fight these bad men to protect you” and so on. I was six years old. I knew something was up from their tone, so I took it all in, nodded my head in solemn acceptance and still figured he would be back in no time after he beat the bad guys.
This would be the last war for dad, he would have his 20 years for retirement in Vietnam, so my parents decided to move us all to Ohio to be near family and find a place we could finally start putting down those fabled “roots” while dad was off fighting in Vietnam.
I’m still not sure how we all got from Georgia to Ohio…dad must have taken leave to drive us all in our Impala Wagon as my mother never got her driver’s license.
What I do remember was mom dealing with the contractors finishing off our brand new house. It was in a new subdivision and still had a lot of work to do. Picking paint colors, finishing off one side of the basement with a family room and half-bath, arguing about all the things on the punch list they didn’t feel was their responsibility.
There was no yard at all, nothing but mud. Apparently being “the man of the house” included working me like a borrowed mule to spread and rake topsoil to start the landscaping. Blistered hands and sunburns “so daddy will have a nice place to come back to.”
Brand new house with no yard, just straw over mud.
As it sunk in that dad was really not coming back any time soon, I began paying more and more attention to the evening news talking about this Vietnam place where dad was. Vietnam was really just starting to heat up when dad went over, and the news started silently running a scrolling list of the KIA’s/MIA’s to close out the newscast each day. These were short at first but began to get longer and longer…and I began to grasp the notion that if dad’s name was on that list he was not coming back. That list became all important to watch, and mom even allowed our little black and white TV to be rolled over into the dining room so we could watch while eating dinner.
It became a nightly ritual to glue myself to the TV as the news showed footage of American GI’s in the background. I scoured each one to see if I might see dad, then read every name on the scroll at the end. This is one of the terrible things that BRATs with parents on a deployment share in common that they all wish they didn’t. Waiting for that telegram or call or visit or whatever they do these days to find out your parent is dead is something that stays with you forever.
I had started the 1st grade, in a brand new elementary school, built just the year before. It was huge and intimidating compared to the little 3 room school house I had gone to kindergarten in. So many kids! I had to walk to school, and the new subdivision we had moved to didn’t even have roads paved yet, just the curbs surrounding sticky clay mud where the streets would eventually go. I did this by myself as mom had to take care of the other kids, but I was a big boy and man of the house used to playing in bombed out Nazi airfields, so no biggie right?
Now that we had moved into this new “civilian world”, away from an Army post, suddenly no one else had parents in the military. They couldn’t understand where my father was, or were paying the slightest attention to the all-important-to-me Vietnam War. There must have been some kids at my school that knew of someone in Vietnam, an older brother or cousin at least, but I don’t remember a single one. They all seemed oblivious, even the teachers, which made it feel even lonelier.
I’m sure that by then, I had already starting developing the shell that many BRATs do from always being on the move. Losing good friends constantly. Becoming very independent. Being flexible and adapting to whatever comes your way. But being in the middle of so many kids that did not share this lifestyle was very tough at first. Many of the kids had already formed bonds from living together in their neighborhoods since birth and having at least one grade together under their belts.
Some BRATS speak of moving and instantly falling in and befriending the new BRATS in school and their neighborhoods, but I was right on the cusp and went from the military environment to the civilian world and it was a sudden and unexpected difference. Luckily, I had a big family with plenty of brothers and sisters, and many, many cousins, to foster that sense of family, place and roots.
A few years later my sister Melody would be the last of the children born in a military hospital, Wright Patterson Air Force Base. When my youngest brother Paul arrived on the radar I remember mom telling my father she was not having another child in a military hospital, even though it would cost much more in medical bills.
I don’t believe my brothers and sisters feel as “BRATty” as I do, as they were all very young, and dad had already retired from the Army by the time they all started school, but I’m pretty sure they still feel like a part of a military family as both my parents served and our common language was filled with military terms and stories from the far off places they were born.
That 1st house my parents bought after dad retired from the Army was the only house they ever owned, and they lived there for over 40 years until they both died there. Dad had so many more dozens of moves from his 20 years in the service that he said he was done moving. He came from a large farm family and enjoyed being around his parents, brother, sisters and cousins that he spent so much time away from. Most of the family have stayed close to that home as well, which after perusing many hundreds of genealogy records would be considered normal.
I wasn’t done yet though, and the first years of my life instilled in me the concept that moving around was normal. I also joined the service at 18 and the Army acted as my travel agency, showing me many additional places around the country and world until I found a spot I decided I might want to spend a dab more time. I do some math and suddenly find I will have lived here in Washington for over 40 years now…maybe I have found a home.
When I find a kindred spirit that I see has moved away from family and the bonds that connect them, I always think about what may have driven them to break those family bonds, especially when they move across the country or world. Perhaps it is one of the reasons I dig rather deep in assembling a family history…to know where we come from, who we have been, to see the bigger picture of what a family is.