more disrupted

Military brat (U.S. subculture)

A "military brat" (and various brat derivatives) is a term for a person whose parent or parents have served full-time in the armed forces during the person's childhood. In conventional usage, the word "brat" used alone may be derogatory; in modern, especially American usage, however, "military brat" is often not considered to be a derogatory term (and may in fact be seen as a term of endearment). Although the term is used in other English-speaking countries, it is exclusively in the United States that this term is ascribed to a collectively identifiable demographic (with extensive psychological research done on the group by U.S. Defense Department). Accordingly, this group is shaped by frequent moves, absence of a parent, authoritarian family dynamics, strong patriarchal authority, threat of parental loss in war, and a militarized family unit. While non-military families share many of these same attributes, military culture is unique due to the tightly knit communities that perceive these traits as normal. Although they did not choose to belong to it, military culture can have a long-term impact on brats.

As adults, military brats can share many of the same positive and negative traits developed from their mobile childhoods. Having had the opportunity to live around the world, military brats can have a breadth of experiences unmatched by most teenagers. Regardless of race, religion, nationality, or gender, brats might identify more with other highly mobile children than with non-mobile ones. Some can struggle to develop and maintain deep, lasting relationships, and can feel like outsiders to U.S. civilian culture. Their transitory lifestyle can hinder potential for constructing concrete relationships with people and developing emotional attachments to specific places, which may later develop into psychologically developmental disorders (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, etc.). But most assimilate quickly and well as they have to do so with each move.


In the 1970s sociologist Ruth Hill Useem coined the term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) for a child who follows his parents "into another culture. Useem used the term "Third Culture Kids" because TCKs integrate aspects of their birth culture (the first culture) and the new culture (the second culture), creating a unique "third culture." Globally, offspring of military households comprise about 30% of all TCKs, but they are almost exclusively from the U.S.

Systematic research on individuals in such environments has been conducted since the 1980s. Responding to social and psychological issues recorded in military families and communities, the U.S. Armed Forces sponsored research on the long-term impact of growing up as a military dependent. Outside of the U.S. there is no significant literature on the effects of growing up as a military dependent. Since the Department of Defense does not track or monitor former brats, any study on adult brats is based upon self identification. Thus, even though the studies are performed using scientific sampling methods, they may contain bias because of the difficulty in conducting epidemiological studies across broad-based population samples. Some researchers used referrals, internet, and newspaper articles to identify military brats.

In 1991, Mary Edwards Wertsch "launched the movement for military brat cultural identity" with her book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. In researching her book, Wertsch identified common themes from interviews of over 80 offspring of military households. While this book does not purport to be a scientific study, subsequent research has validated many of her findings. Patrick Conroy, the author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, said, "Her book speaks in a language that is clear and stinging and instantly recognizable to me [as a brat], yet it's a language I was not even aware I spoke. She isolates the military brats of America as a new indigenous subculture with our own customs, rites of passage, forms of communication, and folkways.... With this book, Mary [Wertsch] astonished me and introduced me to a secret family I did not know I had.

Linguistic reclamation

Linguistic reclamation is the appropriation of a pejorative epithet by its target, to turn an insult into a positive term and deny others the ability to define it; non-military personnel may find the term "brat" insulting if they do not understand the context. Sociologist Karen Williams used it reluctantly in her research, with the disclaimer, "to follow the wishes of the participants. It is a term that they use and feel comfortable with.

Military culture has reclaimed the term to make it their own. Admiral Dennis C. Blair, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command said, "There’s a standard term for the military child: 'Brat.' While it sounds pejorative, it’s actually a term of great affection." Senator Ben Nelson, a member of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, wrote "when the word 'brat' is used to describe someone it is not meant as a compliment, but when it is preceded by another word and becomes "military brat" it becomes a term of endearment. Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter said, "I married what is affectionately known as an Army brat.

Senator John Cornyn identifies himself as a military brat, and also identified Justice Janice Brown as one, during her confirmation hearing before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Military culture has created numerous positive backronyms (acronyms backed into existing words) for brat, such as "Born Rough And Tough" or "Brave, Resilient, Adaptable, and Trustworthy." While some may not like the origins of the term, most are comfortable with it.

The term is now used by researchers and academians as well; it is no longer merely a slang term, but a studied segment of U.S. culture. "Most of the professional research on growing up in military families has contributed to the perpetuation of the 'brat' label," sociologist Morten Ender wrote, "It is no wonder that the label endures and is as popular as ever.

Military culture

Military brats may not develop strong relations with people or places, but can form strong connections with the notion of a military base and the communities in which they find themselves. This is because the knowledge, experience, values, ideas, attitudes, skills, tastes, and techniques that are associated with the military can sometimes differ from civilian culture. Military bases are miniature, self-contained, government-subsidized towns that promote conformity. Military families shop at some of the same stores, whose discounted merchandise is regulated to prevent unfair competition, so they can often end up with the same clothes and products. Male brats were, at one time, likely to get the same "military haircut" at the base barbershop, but this has changed over time. To a child growing up on a military base, in a homogeneous culture, the individuality of civilian life was once thought to be completely foreign. However, as the individual children have attended civilian schools near base and socialized with their peers, this perceived difference has waned.

Values and patriotism

The comfort that can be found on military bases is not limited to the physical trappings, but can be fortified via some of the consistent rituals common to them. When moving around the world, these rituals can help brats feel at home in their new community. Even though the faces and geography change, the "base" can remain recognizable because the rituals are often uniform. The underlying principle of these rituals is consistent: to promote patriotism.

It has been claimed by Samuel Britten on the basis of anecdotal evidence that life on military bases is associated with comparatively greater patriotic sentiments. For example, in the United States, honoring the American Flag is expected. At the end of the business day, on a military installation, the bugle call "To the Color" is played while the flag is lowered. While no longer universal, formerly anybody outside, even if participating in sports or driving a car, was expected to stop their activity and stand at attention. Uniformed personnel salute and non-uniformed people place their hand over their heart.

The Pledge of Allegiance is recited every morning and patriotic and militaristic songs may be sung at Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) overseas and Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS) within the United States. Patriotic ideals often form the basis for church sermons. Protestant and Catholic worship services may include militaristic hymns. Prior to movies at base theaters, patrons and staff stand for the National Anthem and often another patriotic song, such as "God Bless the USA.

The military family knows that the service person may be killed in the line of duty, but may accept that risk because they are taught that the military mission is worth dying for. The mission is one in which the brat shares by extension through his military parent.

Military law requires commanding officers and those in authority to demonstrate virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination in all that they do. In the 1990s, the army officially adopted what have come to be known as "The 7 Army Values," which are summarized with the acronym "LDRSHIP." LDRSHIP stands for Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. While this acronym is relatively new, the ideas it represents have been at the heart of military service for generations. Similarly, the motto "Duty, honor, country" is the standard of the U.S. military. Military brats are raised in a culture that stresses LDRSHIP, Duty, Honor, Country, and being a "lady" or "gentleman." Their strict (outward) adherence to military values is what separates most from their civilian peers. Children of military personnel often mirror the values, ideals, and attitudes of their parents more than children of civilians. Marine General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff said "There's no way, in my mind, that you can be successful in the military and have a family unless that family does, in fact, appreciate your service to the country.[...] [Brats are] patriots and role models for us all." Third Culture Kids often participate in protest or anti-war activities; military brats, however, are generally under-represented.


The stereotypical military family might have had a "duty roster" on the refrigerator, parent-conducted room inspections, and children who say "yes sir/ma'am" to adults. Eighty percent of brats described their father as "authoritarian" or desiring to exercise complete control over their lives. They described their military parent as rigid in discipline, inflexible, intolerant of dissent, disapproving of non-conforming behavior, and not accepting of personal privacy.

Disciplinary expectations extend beyond the military family. Family members know that their actions and behavior can have a direct impact on the military service member's career. The consequences of misbehavior for a military brat are generally greater than for civilian children. A military person’s career and social identity can be dashed in seconds by a willful or careless child. For example, when a military brat gets in trouble, the authorities may call the parent's Commanding Officer or the Base Commander before, or instead of, calling the brat's parents. If the Commanding Officer or Base Commander is contacted, the brat's behavior may become a part of the military member's record, and adversely affect his or her ability to be promoted or get prime duty assignments.

Research into military brats has consistently shown them to be better behaved than their civilian counterparts. Sociologist Phoebe Price posed three possible hypotheses as to why brats are better behaved: firstly, military parents have a lower threshold for misbehavior in their children; secondly, the mobility of teenagers might make them less likely to attract attention to themselves, as they want to fit in and are less secure with their surroundings; and thirdly, normative constraints are greater, with brats knowing that their behavior is under scrutiny and can affect the military member’s career.

Teenage years are typically a period when people establish independence by taking some risks away from their parents. When the teenager lives in a "fish-bowl community," a small self-contained community such as a base, challenging boundaries may be more difficult. Brats know that misbehavior or rebellious activity will be reported to their parents. Brats are sometimes under constant pressure to conform to what military culture expects; this means they are sometimes seen as being more mature in their youth than their peers. If they grow up overseas or on military bases, they might have limited opportunities to see a wide range of role models in different professions.

Strict discipline can have the opposite effect: brats may rebel or behave in adolescent manners well beyond what is normally considered acceptable. Others develop psychological problems due to the intense stress of always being on their best behavior. A Cold War era military psychologist, publishing in the American Journal of Psychology, reviewed the parents of patients who came to his clinic, and concluded that 93% of patients came from military families that were overly authoritarian.

Military classism

Military life is strictly segregated by rank; the facilities provided for officers and enlisted personnel differ dramatically. The officers' housing will generally be more accessible to base activities, larger in size, and better landscaped. On larger bases, the officers' housing may be broken down into different categories, with senior officers receiving larger and more opulent housing; sometimes, the highest-ranking officers live on a row of large houses often referred to as "Colonels'/Captains' Row" or "Generals'/Admirals' Row," as the case may be.

The Officer Clubs are more elegant than the Enlisted Clubs. Officers have cleaner, more elaborate recreational facilities than their enlisted counterparts. Historically, base chapels and movie theaters would have designated seating for officers and their families. For a part of the twentieth century, some bases had two Boy Scout and two Girl Scout troops — one for officer children and one for enlisted children.

These differences are not merely external, but a core aspect of military life. Children of enlisted personnel often believe that children of officers receive specialized treatment because non-officers are afraid to upset the officers. The children socialize with others of the same type; even if an officer brat and an enlisted brat become friends at school, this friendship rarely carries over to the home life. The physical separation and differences between available activities make it very difficult.

The separation by rank has the intended purpose of maintaining military discipline among service members. According to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, it can be illegal for an officer to fraternize with an enlisted person because it would corrode the military hierarchy. This is often conveyed to the children of military personnel. Two brats whose parents have a subordinate-supervisory relationship can cause problems for both their parents.

To a lesser degree, military classism also includes the branch of service to which the military parent belongs. If asked to name "the best branch of service," military brats will almost invariably name the one to which their parent belonged. They will be able to articulate many reasons why "their" branch of the service is the best. These biases are maintained well past the time they cease to be military dependents. When brats grow up, these boundaries are replaced by a shared identity based upon that of being a military brat.


In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military and mandating equality of treatment and opportunity. It made it illegal, per military law, to make a racist remark. Fifteen years later, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued Department of Defense Directive 5120.36. "Every military commander," the Directive mandates, "has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may gather in off-duty hours. The directive was issued in 1963, but it was not until 1967 that the first non-military installation was declared off-limits to military personnel due to its discriminatory practices While these directives did not eliminate racism in the military, they do impact the culture in which children of military personnel grow up.

With strict guidelines based upon the rank of the military member and the prohibitions against racism, the issue of race diminishes among military brats. When families go overseas, minority students rarely experience overt racism from their expatriate neighbors. This is also true on military bases within the U.S.; as the community is isolated and smaller than the off-base community, military dependents are less likely to resort to racist notions. The military community is normally a stronger bond than the differences of race. Military brats grow up in communities that actively condemn racist comments. This results in, according to Wertsch, brats who "aren't just non-racist, but anti-racist."

Growing up military

Sociologist Morten Ender conducted the largest scientific study to date exclusively on career military brats (those who were brats from birth through high school.) He interviewed and sent questionnaires to over 600 brats who belonged to various brat organizations and responded to his newspaper and internet ads. His study revealed that 97% lived in at least one foreign country, 63% in two, 31% in 3. They averaged 8 moves before graduating from high school and spent an average of 7 years in foreign countries. Over 80% now speak at least one language other than English and 14% speak three or more. Ann Cottrell's work with Third Culture Kids, however, shows slightly lower results, but her results did not specify career brats. Sociologist Henry Watanabe showed that military and civilian teenagers share the same concerns and desires, but that growing up in a mobile community offers opportunities and experiences generally unavailable to geographically stable families.


Because military brats are constantly making new friends to replace the ones that they have lost, they are often more outgoing and independent. According to the largest study conducted on nearly 700 TCKs, eighty percent claim that they can relate to anyone, regardless of differences such as race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality.

A typical military school can experience up to 50% turnover every year (25% graduate while a third of the remaining 75% of students move); social groups that existed one year cease to exist as new groups emerge. The brat learns to adapt quickly to fit into this ever changing environment. Highly mobile children are more likely to reach out to a new student because they know what it is like to be the new student.

Recent studies show that, although brats move on average every 3 years, they do not grow accustomed to moving. The constantly changing environment and openness to others has a price. Rather than develop problem-solving skills, there is a temptation to simply leave a problem without resolving it. If a person does not like somebody or gets into a fight, they know that in a few years somebody will move and the problem will disappear. On the other hand, when brats marry it is generally for life; over two thirds of brats over 40 are married to their first spouse.

School life

Moving during the summer months can be challenging. Courses students taken at their old schools may not fulfill the graduation requirements at their new school. Moving during the winter holidays or mid-year, however, has traditionally been viewed as the worst time to move. The student is forced to join classes that have already begun. Social groups become even more difficult to break into and activities that the student enjoyed may be barred to him or her. For example, an athlete may not be able to join his or her sport because they missed tryouts and the season had already begun. A student who excelled at their old DoDDS or DDESS school suddenly feels inadequate at the larger school. Recent studies, however, show that mobility during the school year may be less traumatic than summer time moves.

DoDDS schools overseas and DDESS schools in the United States tend to be smaller than many public schools. Students and teachers often interact in a more social manner with one another. When returning to civilian schools, the lack of camaraderie with the faculty can be an unexpected obstacle for many highly mobile families.

Military brats have lower delinquency rates, higher achievement scores on standardized tests, and higher median IQ than their civilian counterparts. They are more likely to have a college degree (60% v 24%) and possess an advanced degree (29.1% v 5%). While these rates are higher than the general U.S. population, they are lower than those of other non-brat Third Culture Kids (84–90% college degree and 40% graduate degree). Military brats, primarily from the United States, are the most mobile of the Third Culture Kids, moving on average every three years. Brats move frequently between bases in the United States and typically spend only a few years abroad, and sometimes none at all.

Abuse and alcoholism

Two of the common themes in Wertsch's book are abuse and alcoholism. These are echoed in other literature of the Cold War, such as Pat Conroy's The Great Santini. In the 1980s and 1990s the U.S. military focused on the issues of abuse and alcoholism. The impact on the military's efforts remains inconclusive. Some studies report higher rates of abuse in military families, while others report lower rates.

The studies that conclude abuse is a bigger problem in military families than civilian families attribute this to the long hours, frequent disruptions in lifestyles, and high degree of stress. They point out that military families may be more reluctant to report issues of abuse because of the potential impact on the service member's career. Other studies, however, argue that military families have a smaller problem than civilian families because military culture offers more accessible help for victims of abuse. Military families have health care, housing, and family support programs often unavailable to lower income civilian families. Abusive family members are more likely to be ordered (by their Commanding Officer or Base Commander) to obtain treatment, thus reducing reoccurrences of abuse.

Current brats

Most of the research into military brats has been conducted on the long term effects on adults who grew up during the Cold War. As the Cold War came to an end, the role of the United States Armed Forces changed. The U.S. military realized that there was distinct correlation between the quality of life and retention and operational effectiveness. To this end, the military started to change the living standards that most Cold War brats grew up with. The demographics of the military changed. The modern military has a larger proportion of married military members. Since base housing is designed for fewer families, more families are forced to live off-base. Military personnel are being supplemented by more civilians filling essential roles. And the introduction of the large megabases that intermesh different service branches and their individual cultures has also affected the demographics. Finally, during the Post Cold War period, the United States has been involved in three extended military engagements (two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan). The long term effects of these changes are unknown, but research has been conducted on short term effects on Post-Cold War Era brats.

War in the 21st century

Today's military brat faces challenges that Vietnam War Era brats did not have to face. For example, it is estimated that approximately 50,000 military families have both parents serving in the armed forces; this creates the possibility that both parents may be deployed at the same time. Another significant difference is the speed of communication. With the advent of the internet it is possible for family members to communicate with servicemen in combat zones. This allows brats to remain in closer contact with their military parent, but it also increases tension as more details reach the military families. Round-the-clock news agencies, such as CNN and Fox News, spread news faster than the military bureaucracy can process the details. This means that military families know that servicemen have died before official word reaches the family. Military Psychiatrist Colonel Stephen Cozza says that a "sense of fear" accompanies news of the death of a service member until confirmation that the service member was not a loved one.

Despite these facts, studies show only a slight increase in stressors among military brats whose parents serve in a combat zone. Boys and younger children do show the most risk when a parent is deployed, but rarely does this require clinical intervention. However, studies show that when a military member is deployed to a combat zone, the family cohesion is more disrupted than when service members are deployed to non-combat zones.

Military members can be deployed for days, months, or even years without their family. When a parent is stationed without his family, the children experience the same emotions as children of divorced parents. In addition to the effects of the divorce, military brats have additional concerns. When a military member is sent away, the family does not always know where they are going or when (or if) the service member will return. Studies show that there are three phases to deployment and each phase has different impacts on the family. Military spouses reported the following when their spouse was deployed:

  • Predeployment — Marital stress/conflict, distancing from spouse, anger, resentment, sadness/depression, negative child behavior.
  • Deployment — Marital problems, isolation, loneliness, anger, resentment, sadness/depression, reduced communications, stress, less social support, assuming the role of single parent, child care difficulties, sleep disturbances, physical symptoms, home and car repairs, difficulty accessing military services, negative child behavior.
  • Postdeployment/Reunion — Redefining responsibilities, marital stress, communication problems, anxiety, anger, resentment, parent-child attachment issues

While separation produces stress, according to the US military it strengthens the children by forcing them to take on additional responsibilities when a parent is absent, encouraging independence.

"Suddenly military" brats

With the increased demands on the U.S. military, reservists have been called to active duty. The children of these reservists, who are suddenly called to extended active duty, are technically military brats, but they may not identify with or share the characteristics of typical brats. In an effort to help integrate "suddenly military" brats, Operation: Military Kids came into existence. Operation: Military Kids is a program designed to help "suddenly military" children understand the military culture to which they now belong. "Suddenly military" families face challenges not faced by traditional military families. National Guard families are not as familiar with military culture. They are physically separated from other military families, and are rarely as emotionally prepared for active duty deployment. Both the formal and informal support structures available for the regular military families are not as readily available to reservist families. Operation: Military Kids teaches "suddenly military" brats about military culture and expectations.

Death in combat

The effect of having a parent killed during military operations has not been specifically studied. Studies on children who have lost a parent show that 10–15% experience depression and a few develop childhood traumatic grief (the inability to recall any positive memories of the deceased parent). Military psychiatrist Stephen Cozza speculates, based upon his experience, that the long-term effects of having a parent killed during war would be more traumatic and difficult to deal with than typical causes of parental death.

Reunited and reaching out

As adults, brats sometimes try to reunite with their brat heritage.

A recent study, "Military Brats: Issues and Associations in Adulthood," identified several reasons why some military brats, as adults, seek out brat organizations. Brats can feel a "sense of euphoria" when they discover that other brats share the same feelings and emotions. According to the study, brats share a bond with one another through common experiences that transcends race, religion, and nationality. Another common theme behind their joining brat organizations is to stay connected or reconnect with their old friends.

See also



  • Bonn, Keith. (2005) Army Officer's Guide: 75th Edition, Mechanicburg, PA:Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-3224-X
  • Cottrell, Ann (2002) "Educational and Occupational Choices of American Adult Third Culture Kids" In Morten Ender, "Military Brats and Other Global Nomads."
  • Eakin, Kay (1996). "You can't go 'Home' Again" in Strangers at Home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and Coming 'home' to a strange land. Edited Carolyn Smith, Aletheia Publications: New York. 1996
  • Eakin, Kay (undated). "ACCORDING TO MY PASSPORT, I’M COMING HOME." (PDF) U.S. Department of State. Retrieved December 3, 2006.
  • Ender, Morten, "Growing up in the Military" in Strangers at Home: Essays on the effects of living overseas and Coming 'home' to a strange land. Edited Carolyn Smith, Aletheia Publications: New York. 1996
  • Ender, Morten (2002) "Beyond Adolescence: The Experiences of Adult Children of Military Parents" In Morten Ender, "Military Brats and Other Global Nomads," Portland:Greenwood Publishing Group 2002
  • Ferguson-Cohen, Michelle (2001), "Daddy, You're My Hero!" and "Mommy, You're My Hero!" Little Redhaired Girl Publishing, Brooklyn, NY. ISBN 978-0972926447 and ISBN 978-0972926430
  • Jordan, Kathleen Finn (2002). "Identity Formation and the Adult Third Culture Kid " In Morten Ender, "Military Brats and Other Global Nomads."
  • Morten G. Ender, ed. (2002). Military Brats and Other Global Nomads: Growing Up in Organization Families, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-97266-6
  • Price, Phoebe. (2002). "Behavior of Civilian and Military High School Students in Movie Theaters." In Morten Ender, "Military Brats and Other Global Nomads."
  • Smith, Carolyn (ed) (1996). Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming 'Home' to a Strange Land, New York: Aletheia Publications. ISBN 0-9639260-4-7
  • Truscott, Mary R (1989). ''BRATS: Children of the American Military Speak Out," New York, New York: E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24815-3
  • Tyler, Mary (2002). "The Military Teenager in Europe: Perspectives for Health care Providers." In Morten Ender, Military Brats and Other Global Nomads
  • Watanabe, Henry (1985) "A Survey of Adolescent Military Family Members' Self-Image" Journal of Youth and Adolescence Vol 14 No 2 April 1985
  • Wertsch, Mary Edwards (1991). Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, New York, New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 0-517-58400-X. Also, Saint Louis, MO: Brightwell Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-9776033-0-X.
  • Williams, Karen and LisaMarie Mariglia, (2002) "Military Brats: Issues and Associations in Adulthood" in Morten Ender Military Brats and Other Global Nomads

External links

Search another word or see more disruptedon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature