Author Explains Culture for Fellow Military Brats

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 25, 2006  - Military "brats" are powerfully shaped by the culture they grow up in, and that culture makes a lasting impression, author Mary Edwards Wertsch said.

"It has everything to do with everything that's ever happened in my life," the St. Louis resident said.

Wertsch, who wrote "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress," lived in 20 houses and attended 12 schools during her father's career as an Army infantryman.

"I wouldn't trade that life for anything," she said. "I don't think I've ever met a brat who would."

This culture that often feels rootless to those living in it has made Wertsch and her contemporaries who they are today, she said.

A feeling of being a "nowhere kid" followed Wertsch into her adult life. It was only after seeing "The Great Santini," a character study of a gung-ho Marine pilot and his relationship with his family, in 1980 that she realized others had grown up feeling the same way she had. This revelation prompted Wertsch to write her book.

"I was just totally thunderstruck by that movie. I thought, 'We weren't alone after all'," she said. "The fact is, we do come from someplace, but how are we going to know that? No one ever tells us this."

It's up to brats to recognize they are part of a real culture, and with this knowledge comes an identity, she said. "I think it really puts in the missing piece of the puzzle to understand where we came from -- our own rooted culture," Wertsch said.

She acknowledged there are challenges to growing up in the military culture, but noted the good outweighs the bad.

"In terms of positives, oh my gosh!" Wertsch said. "We can be plunked down into any social setting and make our way very well. People of any class, any background, any line of work, we can join right in and talk with them and be quite comfortable."

She remembers thinking it would be neat to be like her "civilian" cousins and go to school with people she had always known. But that lifestyle just wasn't natural for her, she said.

New challenges and new places were, and brats aren't afraid of either, she said. Putting down roots, on the other hand can be difficult.

"We've lived in St. Louis for 11 years, and in this particular house for 10, which is three times longer than I have ever lived anywhere in my life," she said. Wertsch and her husband, a civilian professor, raised two boys there.

Wertsch said she sought to be authoritative, but not authoritarian in rearing her sons. While there were distinct rules, she said she tried to help guide them to the right choices and decisions, not just impose these upon them. At the same time, they learned very similar values to those she learned growing up, she said.

Those values are at the core of her being, she said.

"I'm talking about a great deal beyond waving the flag," she said. "I'm talking about rock-bottom things like integrity and honesty and an attitude of anti-racism, not just non-racism. Things like loyalty and doing what you say you're going to do -- follow-through."

Wertsch said her biggest reward as a brat is the understanding that her life had meaning because she was serving a meaningful mission.

"The beautiful thing about the military is that it's in service to a mission that is larger than oneself," Wertsch said. "Those of us raised in the military never lose that once we are out in civilian life. We always want to live in service."

In fulfilling that desire, Wertsch has founded Brightwell Publishing, which specializes in books that explore and strengthen military brat cultural identity.

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