The Outsiders: Can military families ever be ‘locals’?

My home town

On a recent drive to take our two eldest kids back to college after spring break, I didn’t mind when Anna commandeered the minivan’s satellite radio.  But halfway through the Berkshires, my elbow hurt from fist-pumping to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and I was bored with pop lyrics. 

Mercifully, Anna fell asleep, her head cocked back and mouth wide open. So, I tuned in a couple of New York City DJs who were debating what makes someone a “real New Yorker.” After considering qualifications such as being mugged, enjoying the sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and crying on the subway, the DJs asked callers what they thought. One caller with a thick accent opined, “You aint no Noo Yawkuh if yous some military brat dat moved heah in high school.”

I nearly choked on my seltzer. Did I hear him right?

The caller had struck a nerve. I was incensed that military personnel and their families, who volunteer to serve their country no matter where it takes them, might never be accepted as locals in the towns they eventually settle into after their commitment is done.

As former military brat, David Tracy, writes in “What It’s Like Growing Up As A Military Brat” on Foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com,

The question that many civilians find so simple, “Where are you from?” isn’t so simple for us Military Brats. And without a true “home,” many Military Brats struggle in the civilian world. They often bounce around between jobs looking to find a place where they feel comfortable. Some are never successful and always feel like outsiders.

In a blog post on Militarybratlife.com titled “The Lost Ones”, former military brat Dawn Risas agrees: “We will always feel like outsiders to civilians … As adults we cannot even answer the simple question at a dinner party, ‘So, where are you from?’”

In her book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, Mary Edwards Wertsch, an expert on military brat subculture, explains the “rootlessness” of military brats, who as adults don’t know where they belong and seek connectedness to places and people. While Wertsch recognizes that overcoming the “outsider syndrome” is difficult, she says that military life also breeds unique strengths — “resilience, good social skills, a finely honed intuition, the ability to observe, learn, imitate” and “a spirit of open-mindedness, and tolerance as well as a lively sense of curiosity that embraces the world as a marvelously stimulating place.”

“Stable balanced lives can be ours,” Wertsch says. “We can even come to understand alien concepts such as continuity and permanence.” But how is this possible unless the locals are accepting of military families as equal members of their communities?

Military retirees experience similar “rootlessness” when they separate after a career of service. Some end up staying in the location of their last duty station, others go wherever their civilian jobs take them or look for jobs in their desired final destination. Regardless of where retirees go, they must still deal with being “outsiders.”

In an attempt to find roots, both military brats and military retirees often turn back to the familiarity of the military. Military brats are significantly more likely to join the military than civilians, and military retirees are more likely to settle in or around military bases where they can stay connected to military subculture and routines.

My own newly-retired military family has decided to make Rhode Island our permanent home. We may be outsiders to the locals, because we weren’t born in one of the Irish-Italian working class neighborhoods, we don’t know how to cook Quahogs, and we don’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts twice a day. But our three kids will have all graduated from high school here, we are buying a house within sight of Naval Station Newport, and we are ready to lay down roots after 28 years in the Navy.

Besides, our lab Moby has marked every fire hydrant on Aquidneck Island.

“Locals” should put aside arbitrary measures when military families settle in their communities and remember that, those who bear arms in service of this country deserve to be welcomed home with open arms.

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Comments: 4

  1. Behind the Story April 9, 2017 at 10:14 pm Reply

    Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe, looks into the connection between reverse culture shock and PTSD. Readjustment isn’t easy. We returned to the United States after more than twenty years of living abroad. My husband wasn’t in the Military. He worked for Asian Development Bank. But I think the adjustment problems are similar.

    You may be interested in this post I published last year. http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/culture/reverse-culture-shock-ptsd/

  2. energywriter April 9, 2017 at 7:30 pm Reply

    There are so many active duty and retirees (military and civilian) in this area that I am shocked when I meet a native. Fortunately, they have made this home for the rest of us. Now, if you cross either the James or the York River you’ll be in “real Virginia.” Remember that you are in Rhode Island, not New York. It makes a big difference. I’m going to forward this to my daughters and listen to what they say.

  3. Anonymous April 9, 2017 at 12:31 pm Reply

    I was born and raised in New England and I say to you, Francis and your children “Welcome Home dear friend”

  4. gracile2 April 9, 2017 at 10:52 am Reply

    Welcome home…. You are now a New Englander!

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