The Tribe

It's hard to imagine a military brat's life.

A young Navy brat says goodbye... again.

A young Navy brat says goodbye... again.

Courtesy of Air Force Brat Heather Wilson.

Courtesy of Air Force Brat Heather Wilson.

  • Multiple deployments and prolonged parental absences.
  • Moving an average of 6-9 times before graduation - losing your friends, identity, and social status every couple of years and rarely knowing your extended family, but being exposed to art, history, and culture most Americans only read about.
  • Living on a series of sheltered "hometown" military bases with no permanent members, often in the middle of foreign countries, from which you are essentially evicted upon graduation and can return only by invitation or enlisting.
  • Growing up in neighborhoods of unparalleled racial and religious diversity, with one of the most level economic playing fields in the country.
  • Living in a socialistic-styled environment (single-payer healthcare, subsidized housing, a strict hierarchy with an emphasis on service), subject to different laws than "civilian" America.
  • Being constantly surrounded by preparations for war and dealing with the traumatic consequences of war.
  • Being raised in a psychological paradox that is idealistic and authoritarian, privileged and painful, supportive and stifling - all at the same time.

Army brat Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of Military Brats Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, was the first to define military brats in 1991 as a separate, distinct group with a cultural identity so powerful, it crosses all lines of race, gender, age, and class. In 1999, David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken did the same for TCKs with their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. In 2006, Army brat Donna Musil's research and documentary film, BRATS: Our Journey Home, illustrated and expanded on these studies. The similarities brats and TCKs share are astounding - from innocuous personality quirks to critical values, life choices, and personal expectations. Some of these legacies are inspiring, others bittersweet. Most brats and TCKs, however, don't even know they belong to this subculture; they just feel "different" somehow, disconnected from their fellow Americans.

Around two million children are being raised in the military today. An estimated 15 million, or 5% of Americans, are adult military brats, and there are untold more TCKs. It's one of the largest (albeit invisible) subcultures in the country. Actors Robert Duvall, Julianne Moore, and Pam Grier are military brats. So are athletes Robert Griffin III, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Strahan; Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins and Pat Conroy; photographer Annie Leibovitz; and singers Emmy Lou Harris, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, and Trey Songz. The list goes on and on.

Before the internet, brats and TCKs could only connect with each other via snail mail or expensive phone calls. Now, social media has allowed them to reconnect en mass and compare notes. For the first time, their culture is being recognized. Others are speaking their language. They finally realize that their "hometown" is not a place, a point on a globe, but the shared experiences of like-minded people.

As Marine Corps brat and author of The Great Santini, Pat Conroy, says so eloquently in his introduction to Wertsch's book:

I thought I was singular in all this, one of a kind... I discovere[d] that I speak in the multitongued, deep-throated voice of my tribe... It’s a language I was not even aware I spoke... a secret family I did not know I had... Military brats, my lost tribe, spent their entire youth in service to this country, and no one even knew we were there.”

They still don't.

But we're changing that.

Banner photo courtesy of Navy Brat Gail Dunagan Morrison (with "Pier Charlie" the Cat).