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Cherie Avila, Museum Storyteller
I grew up in a military family. Both of my older brothers attended a military school for part of their schooling. Upon graduation, all three of us kids served in the military. Although I only served for four years, both of my brothers retired from the military. Most of my high school years were in Korea. When I was a senior year in high school, my dad was transferred stateside. I spent my senior year in Maryland longing to be back with my friends in Korea. When it was time for college, I applied to one university. The one university that I knew a friend from Korea was attending. When I left the Army and chose the civilian career of a teacher, I did not initially realize the uniqueness of being an Army Brat. Over the years I have told friends about being raised in a military family, moving every few years, living in different countries and many states, and attending school in Korea. I couldn’t tell if my civilian friends didn’t believe me, or my story was just so different from their experience that they couldn’t relate. Either way, I often thought of my other “brat” friends and how I would like to reconnect with them.
As my own children started school and I was considering which schools they would attend, I began to think of my own school experience and what has happened to my classmates from Korea. I knew very little about social media at the time and had no idea where to begin to find them. One day I noticed that the public library was going to be showing the documentary, Brats: Our Journey Home. I went to the library, sat in a dark room with a handful of others, and the documentary began. It was about ten minutes into the documentary that I started bawling. I was crying and was not sure why this film was having such an emotional impact on me. At one point in the documentary, I saw the sign in front of my old high school in Korea, I realized why I was so moved. I said to myself, “Oh my gosh! It was real.” It existed. This school that I had been talking about for 30 years actually existed. My memories were real. The documentary validated my experience and my memories of my experience.
As members of military families, we are in a subculture of America that few others experience. Living on a military base is similar to a small town where everybody knows everybody, but unlike a small town, we rarely get the opportunity to go “home.” What does home even mean to military kids? For the few of us that do get the opportunity to return to where we attended school, all the people are different, so it is not the same. There may be some buildings that are recognizable, but it is never the same, and to me does not feel like “home”. Soon after I saw the documentary, a friend asked me to join Facebook to see a photo of her new puppies. Once I joined Facebook, I began searching for friends from my high school in Korea. Once we connected, and began sharing photos and stories, it was if no time had passed. I felt more at home, than I had in a long time. In fact, one friend from high school and I were living in the same town for six years and had no idea the other was living there.
I believe that it is through our stories that we make connections with other members of military families, often finding similarities with which we can relate. Although we may share some similar experiences, there is no one stereotypical military family. Being a part of a military family, we all have very different stories, but once we share our stories we can begin to relate, to make connections, and perhaps find that sense of home you may be longing for. I believe it is through storytelling that we find the common thread that binds us together. The Museum of American Military Families can be that venue for thread-finding, but it does require you to be willing to share your story. I ask you to be brave and share a story from your life in a military family. You can start by visiting the the museum’s Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/MuseumoftheAmericanMilitaryFamily . You can scroll on the side of this webpage and find a blog or podcast that reminds you of an event or episode you would be willing to share.
Together, let’s make 2021 the year of connections and start by telling your story.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Shanon Hyde, Student Liaison, is a Marine Corp brat and a student at Pennsylvania State University, majoring in Aerospace Engineering. From 2016-2019 he attended Kubasaki High School in Okinawa, Japan and was the President of his Junior class. While living in Okinawa, he had the opportunity to travel to several different countries, learning about different cultures and worldviews. In May of 2020 he graduated from Mooresville High School in Mooresville, North Carolina. In August of 2020, he started The Shanon Show podcast, which allows him to connect with military brats and share their stories on the internet. Shanon is committed to shedding a light on the issues that student brats face when transitioning to college, career, and life. In his free time, Shanon loves to make homemade sausage and watch Adam Sandler movies.
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One of the things military families tell me when they visit our museum is that they miss the life they left behind when they left the service. That life, of course, means different things to different people, but sometimes it’s quite clear that they are looking back nostalgically to what author and historian Mary Edwards Wertsch calls “life inside the fortress.”
The “fortress” refers to a military installation where families work, live, shop, and play inside the installation’s perimeter fence. Living and working in such close proximity creates a very tight-knit community. While this community is comprised of very different individuals with very different perspectives, these individuals are bound together by a common purpose: the mission.
On an installation, at 5 o’clock pm, everything comes to a stop as the National Anthem plays over a loudspeaker. Children stop playing, cars come to a halt, and anyone walking outside comes to a stop. At 5 o’clock everyone faces the flag and places their hand over their heart or, if in uniform, salutes. The National Anthem also is played in installation movie theatres, and the audience stands at attention prior to viewing the feature.
There is a sense of pride and duty that comes with being a military family, and living on an installation requires a modicum of discipline: yards must be kept to a certain standard, children mustn’t run amok, rules must be followed.
One Air Force daughter says, “I grew up knowing that I was a child ambassador representing the United States, the Air Force, and my immediate family.While living overseas and learning new customs and meeting new people, I represented the best of the United States.”
I grew up in Germany knowing that what I did reflected on my parents. If I did something wrong, people would tell them, and there would be Dire Consequences. Luckily, I was a pretty good kid, and the only dire consequence which happened was after my father received a letter from the Post Commander reprimanding him for allowing me to have 36 overdue library books. I was banned from the library for six months.
All people who have left this lifestyle, whether they liked it or not, have stories to tell.
Spouses often reminisce about living in base housing. They acknowledge the lack of privacy, but they also point out the great connections they built. Living in stairwells or in the close quarters of a military installation, means that the adults keep an eye on the kids, everybody knows everybody’s business, and one can’t really “escape the busyness” of the military tempo.
Shannon remembers life on Holloman Air Base during the Vietnam War. She describes when a jeep pulled up to her quarters. “I watched from the window as they walked up to the house. They spoke to my mom for a few minutes and then mom came in. I remember holding my breath (we knew what this meant). She said, ‘I need you and your brother to go next door and stay there until I get back.’ We didn’t ask questions, we went…It wasn’t until years later that mom talked about it though. She told me that she was going to the houses of wives that were being told their husbands were not coming back. She hated the task, but she said she would be damned if those women were going to face that time alone.”
Even as times have changed, the conflicts are different, more spouses work, and life doesn’t solely revolve around the installation, military spouses still look out for one another.
Sometimes it’s in social media groups like Facebook, where someone might post “We’re moving to base soon, which pediatric dentist in town do you recommend”? Or, “There are two black-and-white dogs running down my street, does anyone know who they belong to?” Or, “Can anyone look after my toddler while I run to the commissary for an hour?”
As our lives get busier and increasingly more isolated, we don’t have as much face-to-face contact with our neighbors as we used to, and small social media groups can be very helpful in bringing people together, building connections, and sharing information.
Adult brats often say that they can sense another brat, even in a crowd of strangers. Brats are drawn to each other because of their shared experiences. That happened to me just the other day at an East Mountain Regional Chamber of Commerce meeting. As I introduced myself to my tablemates, the man sitting to my left mentioned he was a brat. A little later, a woman came up to me and told me she was a brat as well. Instant community!
As military families, we are used to moving into and out of communities each time we PCS (move) even while yearning for a permanent “home” someday. “Home is where the heart is” is an oft-quoted platitude–people are the heart of our communities, and communities are what draw people to them when they’re deciding where to settle.
Our neighborhood is small, and when my husband and I are out walking our dog, our neighbors wave as they drive by. We recently got together for a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party, and via Facebook and cell phone, we keep each other informed if we notice anything out-of-the ordinary. It’s nice to have human connections.
Small communities are special. That’s one reason we chose to locate our museum in Tijeras—next to Molly’s Bar, because we wanted to be a part of a small, lively town and part of Route 66’s continuing history. We love the mountains, the folks who come and go from Molly’s, the tourists who are cruising the Mother Road, and the East Mountains’ unique vibe. People are neighborly here; they have time to visit a little. They offer to help someone out. They leave little painted rocks on our museum doorstep.
We hope our museum will become an increasingly important part of the business and tourism ecosystem here, and that as we grow and expand, we can meet many more of our East Mountain neighbors. Stop by the museum for a bit, let’s share a story and get to know each other!
(Circe Olson Woessner is the executive director of the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center. The museum collects and preserves the stories of military families of all branches and generations. The museum is located at 546B Highway 333, Tijeras.)
It’s shaping up to be another literary year for MAMF!
Our writer-in-residence emeritus Paul Zolbrod will be leading our monthly Book Club discussions and working on some local writing projects…
…our 2019 writer-in-residence ( drumroll please) Military Brat Lauren Mosher will be starting with MAMF in January. She’s going to put out a call for stories for this year’s anthology: My Hero Dog: Stories on How Our Dogs Have Helped Shaped Who We Are”
So…if you have an amazing dog and want to share a story, we would love to include it in the book!
MAMF Artist in residence Lora Beldon is working on our play in collaboration with several theatrical and veterans groups in Richmond, and we will be compiling stories for a companion anthology to SHOUT! It’s called Still SHOUTING!
Director Circe Olson Woessner will be working on a book about the troops and their families stationed along both sides of the East-West border in Cold War, Germany.
So…another busy year for the writers, artists and poets of MAMF.
Proceeds from all our book sales help the museum’s operating funds—so we can continue to bring programming and exhibits to the public!
Looking forward to hearing from you as we start 2019 with a clicking of keyboards!