An Army Brat Who Never Belonged

Times Staff Writer

Unprepared for what she would see, Mary Wertsch once watched the film "The Great Santini" and was left shaken by the harshly familiar portrayal of the life she had lived growing up as the daughter of a career Army officer.

"About five minutes into the movie, I had the distinct sensation I was watching my own life," she would later write about the film, which depicts a Marine family in 1962.

The movie included scenes of "mother and kids assembled at airport, nervously awaiting the arrival of the father they haven't seen in a year," Wertsch wrote. "Whole family jammed into an over-packed car, setting off at 0300 hours for a new life, leaving friends and school and all that's familiar behind. Kids lined up on the front steps of the new quarters as their father paces up and down before them, swagger stick in hand, lecturing them on 'troop morale' and demanding assent in the form of a chorus of ear-splitting 'Yes Sirs.'

"It remains one of the pivotal experiences of my life," she concluded, "for that was the night I began at last to realize what it means to have been raised a military brat."

The experience sent Wertsch, 35, on her own exploration of "the legacies we have to understand by virtue of being raised inside the fortress," a research project that the former investigative reporter is turning into a book tentatively titled "Military Brats: The Rearing of the Non-Volunteers."

Personal, Family Conflicts

Wertsch contends that behind the military family's required facade of normalcy are personal and family conflicts bred by the realities of military life: mobility, a rigidly authoritarian family structure, father absence, isolation and alienation from the civilian community, membership in a strict caste system, occasional alcoholism, a backdrop of war and death and the pre-eminence of the military mission.

"It's like there's an invisible member of the family and that's the military mission," Wertsch said. "And that member rules. Whatever's going on, everything is subordinate to that member."

Those factors can produce children who grow up to find adjusting to civilian society and forming personal relationships a difficult, confusing enterprise. Some of the estimated 5 million military offspring never master the skill, Wertsch said.

Wertsch has interviewed about 30 military brats in San Diego, Chicago and other cities, and hopes to include about 50 military children in all. Her anecdotal account, bolstered by military research, shows that nomadic patterns often continue into adulthood; that poor relationships with domineering and frequently absent fathers persist, and that family tensions are often played out in the form of open rebellion by sons and eating disorders among daughters.

Wertsch's work comes at a time when military demographics are changing drastically from the days when soldiers were told that if the military wanted them to have a family, it would have issued them one. As of 1986, the nation's 2.1 million military personnel had nearly 1.2 million spouses and almost 1.7 million children, according to a Department of Defense official.

While the four services are increasingly turning their attention to the needs of these families, Wertsch is concerned about the millions in their 20s through 50s who have already lived the life of military brat.

"Our task as military children is to understand this, grieve over it if necessary and get on with things. That's what I hope my book will do," she said.

Moving Becomes a Habit

Wertsch, who attended 12 schools before graduating from high school, found that the military brats she interviewed typically moved 9 or 10 times themselves. Sometimes the pattern persisted into adulthood. An extreme case is that of a 28-year-old San Diegan who still "moves every two years, not for any job reason, but because his clock goes off," Wertsch said. "He has to move like he did when he was young."

With each move, the man quits his job, severs his romantic relationship and leaves no forwarding address for his friends, even though his moves are all within San Diego, Wertsch said. In recent years he has broken an engagement, left a live-in lover and initiated divorce proceedings against a wife he still loves.

Asked by Wertsch if there is anyone from his past he could contact, the man said, "I have a very close friend right here in San Diego, and he would like to talk to me. But I know I just won't pick up that phone."

Though they are insiders in the closed and protective military world, military children are awkward outsiders in the more complex real world, where the black and white order of military structure gives way to subtler shades of gray, Wertsch believes. When coupled with their nomadic habits, the outsider syndrome leaves some military brats feeling like they never belong anywhere, Wertsch said.

"The most important thing I've learned is about belonging," Wertsch said. "Belonging is not a matter of being passively categorized, like in the military. Belonging . . . is a function of your involvement, your contribution. And you get back to the degree you contribute."

Quick to Adapt

But military families adapt remarkably. Kids are expert in picking out the other military offspring in a classroom and quickly become socially skilled, she said. Wertsch claims that most can ape regional accents to help them blend in and create the illusion of sameness. They move easily in varying social situations.

In adulthood, Wertsch coped by "marrying roots"--husband James Wertsch, an associate professor of communications at UC San Diego, who was brought up on a farm in a large, close-knit family. Wertsch also became active in church life.

"The truth of the matter is that military brats have no roots in the traditional sense," Wertsch said. "We do have roots, but they're experiential."

One shared experience is the military caste system. Like their parents, officers' kids are sometimes taught not to fraternize with enlisted men and women's children. One woman told Wertsch of her attempt, as a child, to bring an enlisted man's daughter into the pool reserved for officers' families. The child was barred from the pool.

Another is living in the house of a "warrior," a man who may wear home the "mask," uniform and habits of someone whose days are spent preparing for violent conflict. He can be extremely authoritarian, issuing demerits to his children and posting duty rosters on the refrigerator.

Such fathers are often unable to express love, and are physically or emotionally absent. Their children are trained to be "little stoics" who deny pain, fear and emotional trauma, she said.

This has a foreseeable destructive effect on relationships with their children, she said. One man she interviewed lives a mile from his father but never visits him. "He feels like he never had a father and he's very angry about it," she said. "Of the sons, most have suffered some kind of dysfunction with their fathers," she said.

Mentors Fill the Gap

A typical reaction is to cultivate mentors, which Wertsch did during a life of estrangement from her father, who retired as a colonel after 30 years in the Army. Two years before her father died, he and Wertsch were able to mend their broken relationship, she said.

"My father mellowed a good deal in the last few years," she said. "He could say 'I love you' at the end, which he could never say before."

Wertsch has particular sympathy for military wives, whose task she considers the most complex. When their husbands are away on duty, they must be both mother and father, adopting the strong decision-making roles of their spouses. When the man of the house returns, they often are asked to switch back into more typical female roles.

On top of that, the woman is primarily responsible for keeping up the family's mask of conformity with military notions of propriety, holding the home together on income that is often inadequate, Wertsch said.

Wertsch does not deny that military kids do acquire certain strengths by virtue of this experience. Many develop independence, self-reliance, fierce loyalties and strong principles, she said. But the book is for and about people who lived a different side of the story.

"The price of membership in the military is unquestioning belief in the myth," she said. "The myth is healthy, well-behaved, pristine, patriotic families. They don't want to hear this, and I understand that. I'm writing this for people like myself."

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