FORT LEE, Va. (April 6, 2017) -- On a recent drive to take our two eldest kids back to college after spring break, I didn’t mind when Anna commandeered the minivan’s satellite radio. But halfway through the Berkshires, my elbow hurt from fist-pumping to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and I was bored with pop lyrics.
Mercifully, Anna fell asleep, her head cocked back and mouth wide open. So, I tuned in a couple of New York City DJs who were debating what makes someone a “real New Yorker.” After considering qualifications such as being mugged, enjoying the sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and crying on the subway, the DJs asked callers what they thought. One caller with a thick accent opined, “You ain’t no Noo Yawkuh if yous some military brat dat moved heah in high school.”
I nearly choked on my seltzer. Did I hear him right?
The caller struck a nerve. I was incensed military personnel and their families, who volunteer to serve their country no matter where it takes them, might never be accepted as locals in the towns they eventually settle into after their commitment is done.
As former military brat David Tracy writes in “What It’s Like Growing Up As A Military Brat” on Foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com, “The question that many civilians find so simple, ‘Where are you from?’ isn’t so simple for us Military Brats. And without a true “home,” many Military brats struggle in the civilian world. They often bounce around between jobs looking to find a place where they feel comfortable. Some are never successful and always feel like outsiders.”
In her book “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,” Mary Edwards Wertsch, an expert on military youth subculture, explains the “rootlessness” of military brats, who as adults don’t know where they belong and seek connectedness to places and people. While Wertsch recognizes that overcoming the “outsider syndrome” is difficult, she wrote that military life also breeds unique strengths – “resilience, good social skills, a finely honed intuition, the ability to observe, learn, imitate” and “a spirit of open-mindedness and tolerance, as well as a lively sense of curiosity that embraces the world as a marvelously stimulating place.”
“Stable, balanced lives can be ours,” Wertsch asserted. “We can even come to understand alien concepts such as continuity and permanence.” But how is this possible unless the locals are accepting of military families as equal members of their communities?
In an attempt to find roots, both military brats and military retirees often turn back to the familiarity of the military. They are significantly more likely to enlist than civilians, and military retirees are more likely to settle in or around military bases where they can stay connected to the familiar subculture and routines.
My own newly retired military family has decided to make Rhode Island our permanent home. We may be outsiders to the locals because we weren’t born in one of the Irish-Italian working class neighborhoods, we don’t know how to cook Quahogs, and we don’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts twice a day. But our three kids will have all graduated from high school here, we are buying a house within sight of Naval Station Newport, and we are ready to lay down roots after 28 years in the Navy.
Besides, our lab Moby has marked every fire hydrant on Aquidneck Island.
“Locals” should put aside arbitrary measures when military families settle in their communities and remember that, those who bear arms in service of this country deserve to be welcomed home with open arms.