(CAMBRIDGE, MASS.) For someone who grew up in a military family, the most ordinary opening rituals of conversation can cause momentary panic: “Where are you from?” “Well, I was born in Virginia.” “Yes, and then what?” “Then we lived in 15 different places.” Frequent family moves, intermittently to overseas bases, are a dominant feature of service life. In a transient society, the military leads the way in geographical mobility. The average American family pulls up stakes once every five or six years, but military families move twice that often.
“You get awfully tired of leaving behind your pet cemetery,” recalls one woman whose father was a Navy pilot. As Sheldon Kopp, a psychotherapist who has treated many grown children of career military men, has noted, “Imagine how painfully disruptive it must be for a youngster to be repeatedly uprooted each time he or she has just about gotten used to living in a particular town, finally made friends, and learned to meet the expectations of an unfamiliar school.” 1
Of course, the relatively closed social system of the military community helps to cushion the shock of moving. In the residential areas of its bases around the world, the military tries to maintain a uniform atmosphere of all-American homeyness. But the enforced rootlessness of this nomadic way of life has a lasting effect on children, frequently extending well into adulthood. Orders to move may no longer arrive from the Pentagon every two or three years, but grown military children often find it hard to shake the habit. And, as researchers who have studied military children have observed, their easy adaptibility to new settings may be offset by an impaired capacity for intimate relationships.
In the following interviews, “Harold Newman” and “Warner Goff” discuss the effect of growing up in the military on their adult lives. Now in their 30s, neither has married and both chose careers that allow them to travel and move often — Newman as an itinerant historian and Goff as a photographer. They each trace the restlessness that has colored their adult lives to the repeated disorientation they experienced as children.
“My sense of being a military child is that we were in a special club. We lived well, we lived very nicely, and I can remember liking all the accoutrements. I was very young and my father was a senior officer, so I had a sense of prestige that I may not have had on the outside. My parents never stressed the hierarchy, but I can remember kids saying, ‘What’s your Dad?’ And I’d say my Dad’s a colonel, and sort of puff up a little bit, you know. And if the other kid’s father turned out to be a general, it was a bit of a disappointment.
“I can remember when we took the boat to Germany and we had the best cabin because my father was the highest ranking officer on the boat. For me it was nice, it was something very special and I was special because of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t deal with the ramifications of the system until much later, when I realized there was nothing at all to be exalted about.
“But I also think there was a resentment of officers’ kids. I had one experience in school in Germany. I was mouthing off in class. The teacher grabbed me, took me outside and started shaking me and said, ‘just because you’re the son of a colonel doesn’t mean you can shoot your mouth off in my class. Who in hell do you think you are?'”
“This was in the mid-50’s when I was in junior high school. We lived in a military compound outside of town and I belonged to a gang of boys who behaved obnoxiously. I can remember one Halloween we went off the compound and broke windows and threw things at lights. We behaved like occupiers. As far as the kids were concerned, the Germans were sort of inferior; they were the ‘putz-fraus’ who came and cleaned the house. They were poor and they were sort of stupid, we thought; they were there to be hassled by us. I never got any of this from my father, who is an impeccably fair person. It was just the peer culture.
“I remember we had to take German in school and no one would ever study. It was considered low — ‘Kraut talk.’ That’s something I really resent looking back on it, because eventually I spent a lot of time learning German. Years later, when I was back in Germany doing graduate work, I saw an East German propaganda film which showed high school students from the American military dependents’ school in Berlin, all wearing letter jackets, pushing Germans off the sidewalk and acting like young thugs. I hated to think it could have been me in that film.
“We did everything we could to keep apart from German culture. We didn’t play with German kids and we tried to replicate American culture down to the last sock hop. I remember playing football every weekend; Boy Scouts was a very big thing and listening to Armed Forces Radio. There were dances at the teen club and a swimming pool. It was like living here. I feel sad when I think about it now: how you go through a country and never touch that country. Even when you go on vacation, you go to these beautiful Army hotels and everything is taken care of for you. Everything is nice and cozy, and you’re allowed in just because you’re a member of the Army. It’s like a club and you’re high in the club because your father is high in the service.
“It was very comfortable. You knew your place and you knew what you were doing. It was a world unto itself. And one filled with things to do — parades and maneuvers and there were always tanks going by. For kids, it’s a great kick.
“It probably has a greater effect on me than I realize. I’m incredibly restless in all respects — geographically and personally. I move from place to place, from relationship to relationship, from culture to culture. It may just be by chance that I have continued to move all over the world since I’ve been an adult, but I doubt it.
“The other thing is that I’m petrified of having children, partly because I’m not sure I could avoid the strict sense of discipline I grew up with. You have to understand that the military values were so deeply those of my father — it wasn’t as though this was something outside of him, at all. You absorb a lot of those values as a child; you can’t help but absorb them. So I just don’t know what kind of father I would be. I’d be petrified I’d be just like my old man. Which would mean that I’d be yelling at my kids all the time, telling them to do this, do that, say ‘Yes, sir.’ We didn’t salute, but it was close. If you didn’t say ‘Yes, sir,’ you were in big trouble.
“Now I can’t stand it when anybody tells me what to do. I can’t work for anybody; I could never have a boss. That’s why I’m a professor. The kinds of personalities the Army attracts, the ones who are successful in it, probably have an authoritarian bent. For me, the academic life is nice in that respect: no one tells you what to do. You go in and tell the kids what to do. And that’s the other side of the authority question: whether you yourself become authoritarian in your hate of authority. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m authoritarian, but it’s hard to tell.”
“My first memories are of Paris. My father was stationed there with NATO, and we lived in an apartment on the Champs Elysees. I went to a French kindergarten and was completely bilingual. The French schools were very advanced: I learned how to multiply and divide. So when I was six or seven and we moved back to Virginia I was ahead of the other children my age. But I wanted to be accepted, so I stopped speaking French; I even refused to speak it at home. All that French flavor I had picked up got sacrificed to peer group acceptance in Arlington, Virginia. It’s a typical military story.
“I’m always conscious of the reverberations in my life of the constant mobility I grew up with. The family moved abroad and back again and across country every two to four years. My parents were the ultimate geographical flexibility types: every summer they and six kids would pile into a convertible and drive across the entire country to go back to California. Four kids in the back, the little baby tucked up under the dashboard, two parents and another kid in the front. We’d stop off at military bases along the way and go swimming at the Officers Club.
“Once I was on my own I kept moving. I’d go to L.A. for awhile, then move to Detroit for a year or New York for a couple of months. So here I am in my early thirties finally all by myself with my family 6000 miles away in Hawaii. It’s certainly true you never have a home. You always willfully decide a place to identify with. If someone asks where I’m from, I usually just end up saying all the places I’ve been. Many times I’ve known people who grew up on a farm or in the city and they seem to have benefited by being rooted to a place. But I do feel like a stranger almost everywhere. I’m really not totally comfortable in any one place.
“My father was a general in Vietnam and in Thailand during the war. While I was still at college, I invited him to come and speak on Vietnam. But my teachers were really opposed and so were many of my friends, so I was caught in the middle. I didn’t know what to do. I went to visit him in Thailand in 1968, right after I graduated, and it was even more confusing. I’d go up to the bases and watch missions take off at dawn, thinking, oh wow! whoosh! the jets are taking off! The feeling I had of conflicting loyalties has not stopped to this day.
“You couldn’t be in Asia and not be terribly conscious of how people were suffering. I would hob-nob with my father’s friends, the generals, and tell them that the war was terrible and they were nuts. They would just say, ‘Aw, you protestor you. Ha ha, back up East.’
“My father used to write me these letters from Vietnam saying things like, ‘I just flew into a firebase. I’ve already lost half my unit.’ It was heartbreaking. He was one of those officers who fly into the paddyfields of ‘Gookland’ in their high-falutin’ helicopters to say hello to the troops. Meanwhile, men between 16 and 21 years of age were taking the fire! And my father was the officer in charge. It was so conflicting and it got worse and worse.
“We never discussed politics at home. My father was the glorious figure in the family. But when he finally retired in 1972, after having been in Vietnam three times, there was absolutely no acknowledgment of that fact. Everybody just thought ‘thank God,’ because being a general from Vietnam was considered just awful.
“I feel I know very little about what my father has done and it’s hard to talk about it. It’s easier not to ask these questions. People ask me, ‘What was your father really doing in Asia?’ and I say I don’t know. And I don’t think I want to either.”
“I hardly ever talk about my military background except when I really get to know somebody. But more and more I realize the effect on me of having grown up in such an atmosphere of male grandeur. Like a lot of military men, my father was always a removed figure in the family. He was dashing, handsome, and not around. My mother was left to discipline the family and she would do it by saying ‘If your father saw this…’ There are incredible demands placed on wives. Your husband’s away for two years? You’re expected to take care of yourself and the kids and be loyal. My mother was alone so much of the time. I would really hesitate to put myself in that position. As a woman in the military you are supposed to be tolerant and nice and untroubling — that’s what I remember. You carry those values along with you and they don’t serve, because sometimes you have to fight to make things work out.”
©1980 Ann Banks
Ann Banks is studying the Military Family on her APF fellowship