On Being a Military Brat

I tend to think of myself as a military brat, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Eagle Scout service project, 1994

When I look back on my childhood, I was practically a nomad until I was ten years old. I’ve been told by others that my life would make for an interesting book. Perhaps they’re right.

I was born in late November, 1977, at March Air Force Base, near Riverside, California. My father had recently separated from the Army after six years, and had switched over to the California Air National Guard; instead of maintaining helicopters, now he would be working on fighter jets. My mother had been a housewife for nearly four years, caring for my older brother after she married my father and dropped out of school at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.

My parents met in the summer of 1973. My father was stationed in Illinois, and worked on UH-1 Hueys. One of his childhood friends was flying in the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s annual air show in Oshkosh, and my father took leave to go up to Wisconsin to see him. My mother was working at the information booth, and the two met when my dad stopped to ask for directions. The rest, I suppose, is history, and they were married about six months later.

Pat & Jim Rodgers, 1974

My father, James Patrick Rodgers, came from a very strong military tradition. His father, James Dewan Rodgers, had enlisted in the Army in 1946, as soon as he was able, and transferred, three years later, to the newly created Air Force. My grandfather’s father, Charles Robert Rodgers, had been too young to serve in the First World War, but enlisted in the Navy a few years later, when he was old enough. Injuries suffered in the line of duty forced him out of the military, but he continued to serve as a civilian employee at the naval shipyards in California. He was originally from Indiana, where his forebears had proudly served in the military as well, a tradition dating back centuries, even before our ancestors migrated to the American colonies.

Bob & Lorraine Harlan

My mother, Susan Harlan, came from a modest, hard-working family in southern Wisconsin. Her mother, Lorraine Burke, and her father, Robert Harlan, were both from a small town called Richland Center, about an hour northeast of the state capitol, Madison. Lorraine was a Catholic, and Bob a Baptist; the culture of the era made their marriage a taboo, and even prompted to the priest to reassure one of my great-grandmothers that “it wouldn’t last two weeks.” Although they weren’t allowed to marry inside the church, they were nevertheless absolutely devoted to one another. Lorraine frequently worked as a waitress, and years later, after the couple had moved their family to Madison, she even ran a diner near the capitol building. Bob worked as a mechanic and a truck driver. Both worked hard to provide for their family.

My older brother, Kevin, was born in early June, 1974. A few months later, my father transferred to Würzburg, Germany, taking his new family with him. They lived in Germany for three years, moving back to my father’s home state of California when his enlistment in the Army ended, several months before I was born.

Kevin, me, and Stacia on Halloween

My parents eventually moved us to a house in Rialto, next door to another of my father’s old friends. By 1979, as my parents’ marriage was beginning to crumble, my sister, Stacia, was born. My parents stayed together for a few more years, but finally separated in 1982. A year later, the divorce was finalized as my mother gained sole custody of my siblings and me, and she moved us all back to Wisconsin.

My mom went back to college at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh in early 1984, and my father remarried. His new wife was a woman he’d met during the divorce proceedings, named Debbie. I had just turned five, so I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t married anymore. I was angry at my father for leaving. I was angry at Debbie for taking my mother’s place as his wife. I was angry, and didn’t know how to process any of it. Another twenty years would pass—during which my father divorced Debbie and later married another woman, Judy—before I would finally be able to let go of that anger.

In the meantime, I became a virtual nomad, never living in one place for longer than a year. We lived in Madison for six months, while my mom re-established her Wisconsin residency before returning to college. We lived in three different places during the three years that we were in Oshkosh. After my mom had her degree and teaching credential, we moved every summer as she switched from one teaching position to the next: Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation; then Milwaukee, Wisconsin; then Galveston, Texas. Finally, a little more permanence entered my life, when we moved to Baumholder, Germany, for the next seven years.

It was my time in Baumholder that made me think of myself as a military brat. Although my mother was actually a civilian employee of the Department of Defense Dependents Schools system, I nevertheless spent much of my youth in the culture of the military dependents. My father actually was in the military, giving me a tenuous link to the title of “military brat,” but even if that wasn’t so, I think I’d still feel like one.

Baumholder American High School

I became so accustomed to military culture, moving away to central Iowa during my senior year of high school was incredibly difficult. Even as an adult, and as a military veteran myself, I still miss that culture. Where the civilian world seems incredibly cutthroat and mercenary—particularly in Southern California, where I’ve settled after finishing my own enlistment in the Air Force—military culture, with rare exception, has been more about a community that rallies together under adversity, and supports its members when they’re in need. That’s what I remember about being a military brat.

That’s what I miss.

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