Where are you from?

This simple question – a staple icebreaker within any social circle – prompts a much longer response from the military child. I always hesitate before answering, “Alabama,” and am generally met with more questions. Ramble through an uncomfortable explanation, count states on your fingers, share your life story, squirm in the silence that follows. “Are your parents military?”

Growing up in a military family, you start to notice substantial differences between your concept of “normal” and that of the average child. Your friends take an annual vacation to Key West? Your family makes an annual trek to Eglin Air Force Base to unwind on the military beach in American flag backpack chairs. Your friends were born in connecting hospital rooms? You aren’t sure of the exact hospital you were born in, nor have you ever returned.

For a shy, introverted student who made their mom order for them at restaurants until the unacceptably old age of 11, moving every two years was terrifying. The first time pulling up to a new school, I always begged my mom to reconsider home schooling. Thankfully, she forced me to go and I dedicate my excellent education to her refusal to let me hide at home.

By the fifth move, every military child undoubtedly has developed their own social tactics for working the crowd at a new school. My foolproof move – revealing my military upbringing – was to find someone else standing alone looking awkward and select them to befriend. Like there’s strength in numbers, there’s weakness in one and a greater chance to infiltrate. If you substitute “making friends” with “winning a war” it’s pretty much the same. Add in a really cool pair of shoes or powerful drone and you also have the upper hand in friendship, war and probably love.

While most studies refer to the negative implications of growing up in a military family – attachment issues, placelessness, difficulty making friends and inability to show emotion – there are several skills learned as a “brat” that create the perfect formula for accomplished, respectful adults. Although I felt personally insulted by the term “Military Brat” in my 8-year-old brain, once I learned it stood for “Born Rough and Tough” I felt empowered. To this degree, I credit my military family with the confidence and independence I now carry through life.

Adjusting to constant change, you are especially prepared for the inevitable upheaval everyone experiences when they graduate high school, go to college, enter the workforce and become an adult. Prepared to pack and unpack all my belongings with ease, moving from home to dorm to apartment to second apartment all in three years was a piece of cake – as much as my parents wish I stayed in a dorm. I never felt too terribly attached to locations and learned early on that people make a home. Knowing this, I felt I could conquer any social situation or drastic change.

Even though I may have moved approximately nine times more than my roommate, within the military world there is a sense of community unlike any other. The shared experience forges bonds that stay intact despite a changing address. Although I haven’t known my current circle of friends since kindergarten, my social network is larger than most – and my Facebook timeline is entertainingly diverse.

In a culture of rules and orders, military children have a heightened discipline, which extends beyond cleaning your room or completing your chores before being allowed to play. In my own life, this learned discipline fostered internal expectations that today lead me to carefully budget my time, dedicate countless hours to school and strategically plan out my future. Watching my father, my father’s father and my mother’s father exercise discipline and diligence both in and out of uniform, it felt natural to follow suit.

Along with discipline, military children have a greater understanding of patriotism and most likely know all the words to their branch’s fight song. It’s different for us – it’s personal. My grandfather on both sides joined the Army with little to their name and retired successful and happy. My dad still serves active duty, dressing in combat boots and camouflage daily. I will undoubtedly cry whenever I hear a sad country song about a Soldier overseas or watch a homecoming video on YouTube.

The most important thing I’ve learned watching my dad is service. Service to your friends, service to your family and indiscriminate service to your country. Behind each Soldier is a powerful purpose to defend, protect and preserve. Unlike the average profession with a monetary motivation, military men and women chose to sacrifice themselves for a worthy cause.

Entering adulthood, Army brats carry key values with them: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Sound familiar? I thank my dad for being an inspiring military leader and dedicating himself to the country. I thank my dad for teaching me to look beyond myself and recognize my social obligation. I thank my dad for raising me a military child.

Maybe I get restless living somewhere for longer than three years, maybe I don’t know where my second-grade best friend ended up, maybe I don’t know where my dad was for my first birthday. But I do know that my dad was always home at night to sit with me until I fell asleep. I always knew despite the obvious absence that my dad loved me – and loved his country. When I graduate next year, I know I want to go out into the world and do something that matters.

Born rough and tough, military children are recognizably different. My values, beliefs and goals are shaped by my upbringing. As a military child, I would like to thank my military family and all other military families not only for their sacrifice but also for making me a better human being – one national anthem at a time.

Editor’s note: Margaret Mason is the daughter of Redstone Test Center’s Commander Col. Patrick Mason. She is a student at the University of Virginia, majoring in government and economics.

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