From soldiers to sailors and airmen to marines, there are about 1.3 million men and women actively serving in the U.S. military today. Each of them has sworn an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Keeping this promise often comes at a great personal sacrifice. Often, our service members are stationed at remote posts away from their families, spend months at sea, enter into battle, or pay the ultimate sacrifice by dying in the line of duty.
There are nearly as many children in military families as there are men and women in uniform. Affectionately called military brats, military kids regularly have their lives uprooted and are moved around the world as their families are directed by the Department of Defense. As a result of this unique upbringing, military children tend to be resilient, flexible, and worldly. My experience growing up in a military family taught me several important lessons that have shaped my travels.
But First, Why Are Military Children Called Brats?
While most civilian children do not take kindly to being called brats, military children embrace the moniker with pride, knowing that they are also making sacrifices for their country while a parent serves in the armed forces. It is believed that the term brat is linked to the British military. As far back as the 1700s, the wives and children approved to accompany a military member on assignment were called British Regiment Attached Travelers, or BRATs. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the acronym has evolved to refer to American military children.
Lesson 1: The World Is Bigger Than Your Bubble (And Much More Interesting)
While my family moved 12 times in the 20 years my dad served as an officer in the U.S. Army, the majority of my civilian friends grew up in one place. As adults, many of them return to their childhood homes with their own children, visiting parents who still live there. To military brats, there is something very Norman Rockwellian about this scenario, and a desire for my four children to plant deep roots led me to raise them in one spot.
But you can’t take the nomad out of a military child’s DNA, so I worked hard to travel frequently with my kids, whether here in Kansas City or throughout the U.S. And, I’m proud to say that this best-of-both-worlds strategy has contributed to each of my children traveling or living abroad.
Whether attending a new cultural festival in my hometown, taking a day trip an hour away from home, or traveling abroad, being raised in a military family taught me to embrace new experiences near and far.
Lesson 2: Appreciate That There Are Two Sides To Every Story
Even in the 21st century, much of the history taught in American schools continues to be from the perspective of white, Christian, European-American males. Growing up in a variety of places opened my eyes and expanded my mind to consider other views. Even now I find myself drawn to travel experiences that celebrate women’s history, tell America’s story from a different angle, and push me out of my comfort zone.
Like many Americans, I’m in awe of the Greatest Generation and the unparalleled bravery they exhibited during World War II. From the men who leapt into action overseas to the women who traded their aprons for anvils and filled our factories as Rosies, peace-loving people around the world will forever be in their debt.
I would never want to be faced with the weighty decisions President Franklin Roosevelt had to make as the commander in chief during the majority of World War II, and history books have given him due credit for his leadership. But FDR also signed Executive Order 9066, institutionalizing racism against Japanese Americans and committing law-abiding U.S. citizens to internment camps. Growing up in different communities taught me to seek out and be open to different perspectives.
Lesson 3: Seize Carpe-Diem Travel Opportunities
When my dad was stationed in Europe for the first time, my parents had no way of knowing it wouldn’t be the last. Believing it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they seized every moment to explore. We were on the go nearly every weekend and school break, visiting medieval castles, admiring amazing art, and enjoying local celebrations.
My parents were in their late 20s with two small children and one income, so our adventures were carefully budgeted. Instead of staying in hotels, we often camped in our VW station wagon. And instead of dining out, we had a picnic for one to two meals each day.
My dad was able to purchase C-rations from the commissary on base, and we alternated dinners of bland baked beans and uninspiring beef stew warmed over Sterno with mouth-watering, butter-fried schnitzels as big as dinner plates served with fluffy spaetzle and sweet red cabbage. These experiences taught me to seize every opportunity (and that every service member who eats that food in the field deserves a medal of honor).
Fortunately, we returned to Europe three years later. This time, my dad had advanced in rank and the dollar was strong against the local currencies, so all of our overnights were in hotels, and no one had to eat C-rations!
Lesson 4: Don’t Overlook Being A Tourist In Your Own Backyard
It’s not unusual for a military child to attend between six and nine different schools between kindergarten and high school graduation. When you have a new hometown every two years, it’s easy to find exciting things to do, see, and eat in your own backyard. But when you live in a community for an extended period of time, it’s common to think about travel experiences as something that happens elsewhere, overlooking the museums, attractions, and historical sites where you live.
Being raised in a military family taught me to keep a travel bucket list for experiences near home and to incorporate them into a calendar packed with work deadlines, school obligations, and extracurricular activities.
Lesson 5: Be Prepared, Be Flexible, And Be Aware
When you spend your most formative years knowing that you could be asked to move in the middle of the school year or have a parent deployed during your high school graduation, you learn to roll with the punches at a young age.
If you land in Amsterdam and learn that your suitcase is in Atlanta, you celebrate the fact that you always have a toothbrush and a change of underwear in your carry-on. And if you are traveling abroad and encounter protests against American policies, see paddy wagons lining a Paris street when France is playing in the World Cup, or hear police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters outside your hotel in Istanbul, you know to keep your mouth shut, be on guard, and get yourself out of that situation. (Yes, all three of those things happened to me!)
Lesson 6: You Can Never Go Home Again
With a patchwork of places to call home, it’s understandable that military kids have fond memories from around the globe. I often find myself reminiscing about:
- How the summer rain smelled outside our little house in Arizona
- Volksmarching with my family in Germany
- Climbing fruit trees with my sister in our backyard in Maryland
- Finally having my own bedroom for the first time in St. Louis
- The neighborhood restaurant where I ordered my first beer as a teenager in the Netherlands
But we can’t easily return to our former homes, schools, and haunts. And when we do, we find that they’ve often changed significantly over time.
As a traveler, I’ve learned to savor each experience for what it is in that moment. When I am fortunate to get to revisit a destination, I try hard not to be disappointed if the lobster roll isn’t as good as I remember, the hotel rooms have been redesigned, or an exhibit has been closed.
If I Had The Chance To Do It All Over, I Wouldn’t Change A Thing
While I’ve often daydreamed about walking across the stage to accept my high school diploma with kids I’ve known since preschool or my children spending a night with their grandparents at my childhood home, I wouldn’t change my nomadic upbringing for anything in the world. Yes, I gave up the chance to plant deep roots, but I had the opportunity to travel the world, learn a foreign language, and enjoy experiences that many of my peers don’t get to in a lifetime.