You will never hold someone as tightly as the day you have to watch them go to war.
I’m a military brat.
There is no one description for what this means. Some will move 10-15 times across the country or the world where they have to adapt to a different culture and learn a new language. Others will only move once, while some will never move at all. There is a common bond between all of us brats though – you see, we carry with us, deep within our souls, the scars of what it means to watch our parents deploy. We learned at a young age to say goodbye – and the lucky ones, those whose parent did not come home draped under the flag, learned quickly the unspoken rules that were to be followed upon our loved one’s return from tour.
While I cannot speak for all of us brats, I can share with you a very small piece of my story.
Why would I share this with you?
Quite simply: there is healing in sharing. Us brats do not usually like to divulge how we are feeling – especially when it comes to talking about the havoc that occurs in our homes and hearts when our parent comes home from tour. We are, after all, the children of soldiers. As hard as we try, we know that we cannot even begin to imagine what our parents have experienced – and we certainly do not want to rock the boat, to remind them of anything that can trigger a bad memory. So, we squish our feelings down until they are so small that they can fit perfectly in a box – a box that we lock and push to the deepest darkest recess of our soul. If I can help a veteran better understand their child, or help a fellow brat to recognize that they are not alone, then I have done my job. For as different as our stories may be, there is always a common thread that runs through them.
I was one of the lucky ones – I never had to pack up my entire life and move on what was often a moment’s notice. Instead, I got to grow up on the military base in Calgary – what used to be known as the Currie Barracks. Growing up I thought my childhood was relatively normal. It wasn’t until I entered civilian school in grade 5 that I realized it had been anything but! I had grown up with tanks driving around the front of our house, in a community where no one locked their doors, where kids ran freely to play at the park and the outdoor pool with minimal supervision, and where there was a common bond between all of the families.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games – not even close. I grew up in a home where my father literally spent more time overseas than he did with his family. I learned to say goodbye at an early age – and watch my father leave – sometimes for as long as 6 months to a year – deployed to war torn countries – Bosnia, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, just to name a few. And these weren’t ordinary goodbyes – when I said goodbye I never truly knew whether I would ever see him again.
Our goodbye hugs were never quite long enough. No matter how hard I tried to memorize his face, hands, and the smell of his skin – I could never seem to get it just right. But, all of this didn’t matter once I looked up and saw my mother’s face. The tears running down her cheeks and the pain behind her eyes would always remind me to flick the light switch – I couldn’t be sad for too long because I needed to protect her.
We did our best to keep some semblance of normalcy in the house – though there was an undeniable emptiness throughout. And, of course, the nightmares would eventually come as I became unable to continue pushing my fears deep into my subconscious. Where was my dad? All I wanted was my dad. But, in came mom – like she always did to calm me down – though she tried to hide it, I knew she had the nightmares too. She was, and continues to be, my rock.
When the men and women returned from tour, we would go with all of the families to the base to pick dad up. Everyone would be chatting and laughing, but the minute the busses came, everything would go completely silent. As the men and women would step off the bus, the tears would begin to roll down our cheeks… I was too small to see anything, but I would wait patiently to see a pair of boots walk up to my mom. Holding my breath as the man with the folded flag in his arms would walk by… praying that he wouldn’t stop at my mom. I cannot tell you what it’s like not to recognize your own father – it’s something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Unfortunately, it’s something I have had to endure time and time again.
When dad came home, you tiptoed in the house, always being as quiet as possible – trying to more or less be invisible – to allow him time to readjust. Never asking questions unless it was absolutely necessary – and never burdening him with requests for sleepovers and playdates. You did what you had to do to keep the peace in the house. And this was the same with all of us military brats. I remember being at my friend’s house a few weeks after our dad’s came home from Bosnia – we had been planning to help her mom bake cookies. I will never forget the moment my friend dropped a cookie sheet and her father hit the floor as though a bomb had just gone off. At the time, we had thought he was trying to be funny – and, of, course, like little girls do… began to giggle. We realized it wasn’t funny when her father began to weep in the fetal position…
I am a military brat.
I’ve learned that sometimes the phone will not ring on my birthday, and that Dad cannot always be there for big life events. I’ve learned that love can be felt halfway across the world. That satellite phones are a blessing. I’ve learned that war can change families.
I am a military brat. I am resilient, I am strong, I am a survivor, and I understand the world in a way that you never can.
For all you brats out there – you’re not alone. Thank you for being strong and remaining the backbone of the military family.