By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone April 9, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- The lives of military children -- their experiences, their feelings, their questions, their fears -- can be glimpsed in an art exhibit that is now on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
Images of Uncle Sam, peace signs, European towns, sad families separated from their service members, helicopters, suitcases, the U.S. flag and off-post housing fill the walls in an exhibit called "Unclassified: Military Kid Art Show." The exhibit opened Thursday, during the Month of the Military Child, and extends through May 26.
"This exhibit shows the sacrifices children of service members make on a daily basis," Garrison commander Col. Bill Marks said during a press conference opening the exhibit.
"This community is populated well with a lot of those children who have grown up military. The sacrifices they have made are huge. They have sacrificed as much in certain regards as (service members) do and they should be applauded. The things shown in this artwork are things on their minds that go deep into the resiliency they display on a daily basis."
During the press conference, condolences were expressed to the military families who lost loved ones in the shootings of just the day before, April 2, at Fort Hood, Texas. Marks said, "their resiliency will be tested today. Resiliency is exactly what is on display here today."
The exhibit, made up of artwork going back 75 years and continuing to 2012, gives rare insight into the lives of the "American military brat," who are now considered members of an invisible subculture in the U.S. with its own traditions, experiences and lifestyles. It is the first traveling museum exhibit exploring the life of military children through art to educate and raise awareness and appreciation of the military child subculture. Huntsville is only the second city to display the new exhibit. It was first on display at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
Dr. Deborah Barnhart, director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, said the exhibit shows the "strength and courage and love of country" of military children, and the "challenges and opportunities of being part of a military family."
The exhibit includes five thematic galleries containing works in mixed media, painting, video and photography.
Also representing Team Redstone at the press conference were Col. William Darby, commander of Fox Army Health Center; Linda Via, wife of Gen. Dennis Via, commander of the Army Materiel Command; and Laurie Marks, wife of Marks and a military child in her own right.
"She knows firsthand what it?'s like to be a serving military child," Marks said of his wife.
Laurie Marks' father served 30 years and retired in 1979. His service included tours to Korea and Vietnam. She and Marks are now raising their own military children -- two sons.
Linda Via and her husband have also raised two sons -- one who is in college and the other a senior in high school. She "makes sacrifices every day in support of military children. It?'s an ongoing, lifetime effort for her. It's a life of service," Marks said.
The exhibit was compiled by Donna Musil, who grew up a military child and who is the writer, director and filmmaker of the documentary "Brats -- Our Journey Home" and Laura Belden, who also grew up as a military child and who is an artist.
"You may see us as little kids waiting for mom or dad to come home or as unruly children who flit in and out of your communities," said Musil, who moved 12 times in 16 years due to her father's career as a JAG officer.
"Rarely do we see the complex lives these children lead and the profound effect it has on their adult lives. The experiences shape how we think, shape how we feel and shape how we live. It's not better or worse than other children. It's just different."
Musil hopes the exhibit will raise awareness of the "military brat" subculture. The term "military brat" is based on the historical acronym "British Regiment Attached Traveler." Today, it is estimated that 5 percent of Americans belong to this subculture. Currently, an estimated 2 million children have parents serving in the U.S. military and there are an estimated 15 million adult brats of all ages, races, religions and socioeconomic classes.
Once these military children reach the age of adulthood -- either 18 if not attending college or 23 if attending college -- they lose their military ID card, and become part of the invisible Americans who were members of a military family when they were growing up.
"It can take kids a long time to realize they belong to this subculture," Musil said. ?"And belonging is really key. It is the third most important need behind food and safety."
Through the artwork, which stretches back to the 1950s, "kids are talking to you, they are telling you about things, from the wonder of living overseas to the struggle of waiting for dad to come home," she said.
Though viewers see the exhibit as art, it also touches on sociology, psychology and American history.
"These kids have lived through history and no one has ever asked them what it's like to be in the middle of it," Musil said. "All of this is a result of very small groups and nonprofits run by military brats themselves."
In one section, called The Healing Family, the artwork of military child Laura Belden is intertwined with the art of her father, service member Tom Belden.
"It shows the intergenerational effect of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) on a family," Musil said. "PTSD eventually tore this family apart. Laura didn't see her father for 20 years. When they came back together, they were both artists. They both used art to express the trauma of war and what it did to them.
"For Laura, this shows what happened to her as a child and how it affected her as an adult. It brings attention to the long-term needs of military children, whether they are constantly moving through 17 years of service or watching a parent go to war three or four times."
Musil said the exhibit is meant to create understandings of the life of military children and, through those understandings, lead to acceptance, appreciation and healing.
"It's so important to have these conversations," she said. "We need to share the experiences of this wonderful, borderless nation of military kids so that the next generation of military children know where they are, where they came from and who they are."
In some ways, the artwork tells the story of military children, their complicated emotions and their coping strategies better than words can. Musil said the best way to improve the quality of life for military children is for others to understand their lives.
"One piece of art is a picture of Uncle Sam and the words, 'Kuwait, Is it worth dying for?' These kids are asking these questions," Musil said.
The exhibit is presented by Brats Without Borders and the Military Kid Art Project, and was made possible by Newman's Own, Sprint Foundation, American Overseas Schools Historical Society, Museum of the American Military Family, Fisher House Foundation and Military Times. It was brought to Huntsville with the help of The Boeing Company and New Directions Technologies Inc.
It is the recipient of one of six 2012 Newman's Own Awards for innovative programs that improve the quality of life for military families, past and present.