In 1980, journalist and military brat Mary Edwards Wertsch saw the movie version of novelist Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” “The overall effect on me,” she wrote later, “was like being struck by a thunderbolt. . . . For the first time in my life I saw that . . . I (was) . . . the offspring of a lifestyle that is unique, intense, demanding, steeped in characteristic rules and values--and a lifestyle that literally millions of children have shared.” * The movie inspired Wertsch to spend five years examining that experience. In her just-published book, “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,” 80 military brats tell their own stories, of the creation of “little warrior” sons and “invisible” daughters, of the high incidence of alcohol and child abuse on military bases, of resilience--and pain--born of rootlessness. * In turn, Wertsch’s research inspired Pat Conroy. In his introduction to “Military Brats,” which is excerpted here, Conroy writes: “Mary takes the testimony of these children of the military experience and tells us what it means. . . . She lets us know we . . . belong to a hidden, unpraised country. . . . This book is our acknowledgment.”
I WAS BORN AND RAISED ON federal property. America itself paid all the costs for my birth and my mother’s long stay at the hospital. I was a military brat--one of America’s children in the profoundest sense--and I was guaranteed free medical care and subsidized food and housing until the day I finished college and had to turn in the ID card that granted me these rights and privileges. The sound of gunfire on rifle ranges strikes an authentic chord of home in me even now.
My father was a fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps and fought for his country in three wars. I grew up invisibly in the aviator’s house. We became quiet as bivalves at his approach, and our lives were desperate and sad. But when the United States needed a fighter pilot, we did our best to provide one. Our contribution to the country was small, but so were we most of the time, and we gave all that we could.
I think being a military brat is one of the strangest and most interesting ways to spend an American childhood. The military brats of America are an unorganized tribe, a federation of brothers and sisters bound by our uniformed fathers. We are an undiscovered nation living invisibly in the body politic of this country. There are millions of us scattered throughout America, but we have no special markings or passwords to identify each other when we move into a common field of vision. We grew up strangers to ourselves. We were transients, we came and went like rented furniture, serviceable when you needed it, but unremarked upon after it was gone.
I WAS DRAFTED INTO THE MARINE CORPS ON THE DAY I WAS born, Oct. 26, 1945, and I served the Corps faithfully and proudly for 21 years. I moved more than 20 times, and I attended 11 schools in 12 years. My job was to be a stranger, to know no one’s name on the first day of school, to be ignorant of all history and flow and that familial sense of relationship and proportion that makes a town safe for a child.
By necessity, I made my own private treaty with rootlessness and spent my whole life trying to fake or invent a sense of place. Home is a foreign word in my vocabulary and always will be. At each new base and fresh assignment, I suffered through long months of trying to catch up, of learning the new steps required of those outsiders condemned to inhabit the airless margins of a child’s world. None of my classmates would ever remember my name when it was time to rotate out the following summer. My family drifted in and out of that archipelago of Marine bases that begins with the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and stretches down the coast to Parris Island in the South.
My mother, the loveliest of Marine wives, always claimed to her seven children that we were in the middle of a wonderful, free-flowing life. Since it was the only life I’d ever lived, I had no choice but to believe her. She also provided me with the raw material for the protective shell I built for myself. As excuse or rationalization, it gave me comfort in the great solitude I was born into as a military brat. My mother explained that my loneliness was an act of patriotism. She knew how much the constant moving bothered me, but she convinced me that my country was somehow safer because my formidable, blue-eyed father practiced his deadly art at air stations around the South. We moved almost every year preparing for the existential moment (this is no drill, son) when my violent father would take to the air against enemies more fierce than his wife or children.
That was a darker part of my service to my country. I grew up thinking my father would one day kill me. I never remember a time when I was not afraid of my father’s hands except for those bright, palmy years when Dad was waging war or serving in carrier-based squadrons overseas. I used to pray that America would go to war or for Dad to get overseas assignments that would take him to Asian cities I’d never heard of. Ironically, a time of war for the United States became both respite and separate peace for my family. When my father was off killing the enemy, his family slept securely, and not because he was making the world safe for democracy.
My mother would not let us tell anyone that Dad was knocking us around. My silence was simply another facet of my patriotism. My youth filled up with the ancient shame of a son who cannot protect his mother. It would begin with an argument and the Colonel’s temper would rise (one did not argue with the Colonel or the Major or the Captain or the Lieutenant). He would backhand my mother, and her pitiful weeping would fill the room. Her seven children would lower their eyes and say nothing.
Later, my mother would recover and tell us that we had not seen what we had just seen. I breathed not a word of these troubling scenes to my teachers, coaches, relatives or friends of the family. If asked, I think I’d have denied under torture that my father ever laid a hand on me. If the provost marshal had ever arrested my father for child abuse, my father’s career in the Marine Corps would have ended at that moment. So my mother took her beatings and I took mine. My brothers and sisters, too, did their part for the Corps. We didn’t squeal and we earned our wings in our father’s dark and high-geared squadron.
To this day, my father thinks I exaggerate the terror of my childhood. I exaggerate nothing. Mine was a forced march of blood and tears and I was always afraid in my father’s house. But I did it because I had no choice and because I was a military brat conscripted at birth who had a strong and unshakable sense of mission. I was in the middle of a long and honorable service to my country, and part of that service included letting my father practice the art of warfare against me and the rest of the family.
THIS IS MY PARADOX: BECAUSE OF THE MILITARY life, I’m a stranger everywhere and a stranger nowhere. I can engage anyone in a conversation, become well-liked in a matter of seconds, yet there is a distance I can never recover, a slight shiver of alienation, of not belonging, and an eye on the nearest door. The word goodby will always be a killing thing to me, but so is the word hello .
I can close a door and not look back. There’s something about my soul that’s always ready to go, to break camp, to unfold the road map, to leave at night when the house inspection’s done and the civilians are asleep and the open road is calling to the Marine and his family again. I left 20 towns at night singing the Marine Corps hymn and it’s that hymn that sets my blood on fire each time I hear it, and takes me back to my ruined and magnificent childhood.
I brought so few gifts to the task of being a military brat. You learn who you are by testing and measuring yourself against the friends you grow up with. The military brat lacks those young, fixed critics who form opinions about your character over long, unhurried years or who pass judgment on your behavior as your personality waxes and wanes during the insoluble dilemma that is childhood. But I do know the raw artlessness of being an outsider.
Each year, I began my life all over again. I grew up knowing no one well, least of all myself, and I think it damaged me. I grew up not knowing if I was smart or stupid, handsome or ugly, interesting or insipid. I was too busy reacting to the changing landscape and climates of my life to get any clear picture of myself. I was always leaving behind what I was just about ready to become. I could never catch up to the boy I might have been if I’d grown up in one place.
IN 1973, THE DAY AFTER MY FATHER’S RETIREMENT parade, my mother left my father after 33 years of marriage. Their divorce was ferocious and bitter, but it contained, miraculously, the seeds of my father’s redemption. Alone and without the Corps, he realized that his children were his enemies and that all seven of us thought he hated our guts. The American soldier is not taught to love his enemy or anyone else. Love did not come easily to my father, but he started trying to learn the steps after my mother left him. It was way too late for her, but his kids were ready for it. We’d been waiting all our lives for our dad to love us.
I had already begun the first chapters of “The Great Santini . " I wrote about a 17-year-old boy, a military brat who’d spent his whole life pretending that he was the happiest part of a perfect, indivisible American family. As I wrote, the child of the military in me began to fall apart. I came apart at the seams. For the one thing a military brat is not allowed to do is commit an act of treason. I learned the hard way that truth is a capital offense and so did my family. I created a boy named Ben Meecham and I gave him my story. His loneliness, his unbearable solitude almost killed me as I wrote about him. My marriage would fall apart and I’d spend several years trying to figure out how not to be crazy because the deep sadness of Ben Meecham and his family touched me with a pity I could not bear. His father could love him only with his fists and I found myself inconsolable as I wrote this. I wrote “The Great Santini” through tears, hating everything my father stood for and sickened by his behavior toward his family.
But in the acknowledgment of this hatred, I also found myself composing a love song to my father and to the military way of life. Once when I read “Look Homeward, Angel,” in high school, I’d lamented the fact that my father didn’t have an interesting, artistic profession like Thomas Wolfe’s stonecutter father. But in writing “Santini,” I realized that Wolfe’s father never landed jets on aircraft carriers at night, wiped out a battalion of North Korean regulars crossing the Naktong River, or flew to Cuba with his squadron with the mission to clear the Cuban skies of MIGs if the flag went up.
I had to consider the fact of my father’s heroism. His job was extraordinarily dangerous and I never knew it. He never once complained about the perils of his vocation. He was one of those men who make the men of other nations pause before attacking America. I learned that I would not want to be an enemy soldier when Don Conroy passed overhead. My father had made orphans out of many boys and girls in Asia during those years I prayed for God to make an orphan out of me. His job was to kill people when his nation asked him to, pure and simple. The loving of his kids was never written into his job description.
THERE ARE NO CEREMONIES TO mark the end of a career as a military brat. We simply walk out into our destinies, into the dead center of our lives and try to make the most of it. After my own career as a military child ended in 1967, I received not a single medal of good conduct, no silver chevrons or leaves, no letter of commendation or retirement parade. I simply walked out of one life and into another. My father cut up my ID card in front of me and told me he’d kill me if he ever caught me trying to buy liquor on base. I had the rest of my life to think about the coming of age of a military child.
But imagine if all of us--all the military brats--could meet on some impeccably manicured field in a gathering so vast that it would be like the assembling of some vivid and undauntable army. We could come together on this parade ground at dusk, million voiced and articulating our secret anthems of hurt and joy. We could praise each other in voices that understand both the magnificence and pain of our transient lives.
At the end of our assembly, we could pass in review in a parade of unutterable beauty. As brats, we’ve watched a thousand parades on a thousand weekends. We’ve shined shoes and polished brass and gotten every bedroom we ever slept in ready for Saturday-morning inspection. A parade would be a piece of cake for the military brats of the world.
I would put all of our fathers in the reviewing stand, and require that they come in full dress uniform and in the prime of life. I want our fathers handsome and strong and feared by all the armies of the world the day they attend our parade.
To the ancient beat of drums we could pass by those erect and silent rows of fathers. What a fearful word father is to so many of us, but not on this day, when the marchers keep perfect step and the command for “eyes right” roars through our disciplined ranks and we turn to face our fathers in that crowd of warriors.
In this parade, these men would understand the nature and the value of their children’s sacrifice for the first time. Our fathers would stand at rigid attention. Then they would begin to salute us, one by one, and in that salute, that one sign of recognition, of acknowledgment, they would thank us for the first time. They would be thanking their own children for their fortitude and courage and generosity and long suffering, for enduring a military childhood.
But most of all, the salute would be for something no military man in this country has ever acknowledged. The gathering of fighting men would be thanking their children, their fine and resourceful children, who were strangers in every town they entered, thanking them for their extraordinary service to their country, for the sacrifices they made over and over again to the United States of America, to its ideals of freedom, to its preservation and to its everlasting honor.
This piece is excerpted from the introduction to “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,” by Mary Edwards Wertsch, introduction copyright 1991 by Pat Conroy, reprinted by permission of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.