My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Saturday, September 14, 1996

School reunions
even sweeter for 'military brats'

Reconnecting old school ties is easier
thanks to Internet

I graduated from high school a quarter of a century ago. The Radford High School Class of 1971 was virtually all military dependents, or "brats," and we scattered across the planet. A few days after graduation, my best friend's family rotated out of Hickam, and I went down to see her off on the Matson ship. Aloha.

Chances were I'd never see her again. That's the way it is for a brat. Some of us have attended a dozen high schools, others luck out - like me - and were able to attend one school while our fathers shifted duty stations. We have no home town. We have no school allegiance. We were raised in a highly mobile, shifting community in which the only rules are those of behavior and performance and loyalty and a quirky sense of caste.

Military brats form one of the largest sub-groups in the United States, and one of the most unrecognized. Estimates vary, but they're all in the millions. Essentially, a brat is one whose parents were in the military - or the diplomatic corps - and whose childhood is stained by a profound sense of rootlessness. Brats come in all sizes, creeds, colors and beliefs, but they - we - all have more in common as brats than as any particular ethnic group.

It's not so bad now in the military. In the late 1970s, the Pentagon recognized that military families have unique problems and began aggressive counseling and help programs to alleviate the symptoms of rootlessness. The classic military brat mirrors the baby-boomer generation, from the mid-'40s to the mid-'70s.

Brats have certain behavioral characteristics that come from growing up in a nomadic warrior society, both beneficial and self-destructive. The best text on the subject is Mary Edwards Wertsch's "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress" (currently available from Aletheia Publications, 718-224-6303). For a brat, it's a troubling, exhilarating read, because each page seems to be illuminated by lightning. Wertsch has tapped into the secret psychological heritage code that subliminally unites brats.

Non-brats can get an idea of this society and its family dynamic by renting "The Great Santini," a movie that's actually hard for brats to watch. Brats tend to splinter and disassociate and become self-reliant - what's the point of maintaining a friendship when your friends will vanish within a two-year tour?

I can't say this was on my mind when my friend boarded that ship a quarter-century ago. I do know it was painful to see her go. We kept up the correspondence and the late-night phone calls, and saw each other whenever we could, and took joy in each other's lives and career tracks. We are still best friends, a term that has a real resonance. I suppose when you have no home town, no community, you tend to create your own; population 2.

We flew to Las Vegas this summer for the Radford High School 25th reunion. It was surprising how many people we still knew or recognized - virtually all of them - and even more, how fond we were of them, despite the years. High school is such a vivid period in kids' lives that we're molded by the experience. High school is where we become what we will be. These people we knew as kids are now adults, but they're still the same individuals.

Still, only about 5 percent of the graduating class showed up, an indication of how splintered the brat community is. My wife, who went to a stable high school in a Midwestern town, had more than 50 percent of her graduating class show up at its last reunion.

There are a lot of loose threads in the fabric of brat community. One thing that will help reweave it is the Internet. Many high schools have web pages that support alumni listings - Radford's is - and there's a national high school directory called Reunion Hall - - that's easy to enter.

Brats can subscribe to the Military Brats of America electronic newsletter by sending a blank e-mail to or they can check in on brat "chat" rooms in America Online and Compuserve. The brats newsgroup is alt.culture.military-brats. Its address is P.O. Box 1165 New York, N.Y. 10159.

The important thing is, don't lose touch. Communication is supposed to be the one thing humans are good at, but that doesn't make it any easier.

Burl Burlingame, a Star-Bulletin feature writer,
grew up on Air Force bases around the globe. Write to

My Turn is a periodic feature written by
Star-Bulletin staff members.

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