FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- The word "brat" is usually a negative term and typically used when describing badly behaved children. However, "military brat" is not considered to be a derogatory term and is usually one of endearment.
During April, Month of the Military Child, it is especially important to honor the strength and adaptability these children have.
Military brats share common experiences of frequent moves, absence of a parent, and the threat of losing a parent. Although they did not choose to belong to it, military culture can have a long-term impact on brats.
Kids take on extra responsibilities when parents leave for months at a time with only a moment's notice. They take care of little brothers and sisters, and become more independent. Their birthdays and favorite holidays are missed. They live with the fear mom or dad might not come home. But with that fear, kids grow up with immense pride, patriotism, maturity and strength.
These kids don't walk around with signs on their backs saying "I'm a military brat," but there are a large number of kids dealing with some very adult situations.
The Department of Defense reports more than 1.7 million American children under age 18 have at least one parent serving in the military. It is estimated the U.S. Army has more than 900,000 military children with one or both parents having deployed multiple times.
Not too long ago, I fit in that category myself. My dad served 20 years in the Navy. Growing up a military brat there were just as many positives as negatives.
I hope military brats understand what they are going through will make them become a stronger and better person. They will gain a special understanding of patriotism and loyalty that only someone in a military family can fully appreciate.
I honestly believed every seven-year-old was sat down by their father and given a lesson on the importance of integrity and character. I wish that was true. Fifteen years later, I don't remember every birthday or holiday he missed; but, I do remember the lessons he gave me on how to be a good person.
With my dad gone a lot of the time, my mom picked up the extra responsibilities. I will never forget how much she hated cutting the grass. Through that experience, I learned responsibilities are not gender-based. It's a team effort.
The hardest part was not having him there. Like when I accomplished something, I couldn't just tell him. This particularly rang true during a pre-school graduation. My mother tells the story how upset and angry I was with him that particular day. I was a champion silent treatment giver and door slammer. At that age, I didn't fully comprehend the importance of his support during the Gulf War.
But, with the negatives come all of the great experiences. How many kids can say they have stood on the bridge of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower'
The aircraft carrier held a family and friends day onboard for the crew. I remember marveling at the links on the chain attached to the anchor. They were bigger than I was at the time.
My dad demonstrated how they ate when the seas were rough, one arm around the table, the other arm braced around the plate and you would keep your head low to shovel food in. I bet he didn't think I was paying attention as my sister and I slurped chocolate milk.
I asked him why his bed seemed more like a box. He replied, "So you won't roll right out of bed with the waves."
Unfortunately the military life isn't always fun and exciting for kids. I've heard stories from parents how their toddlers regress after being potty trained for months; they begin to have accidents again. They cry, and display neediness, as well as sleep disturbances and separation anxiety.
My mother experienced this first hand with me. I'm sure she wondered why on earth her oldest daughter would cry inconsolably while attending Catholic confirmation classes. She'll tell you carrying a kicking, screaming, temper tantrum-throwing first-grader to school every day was not a treat.
The separation anxiety would come and go, mostly with deployments, but sometimes with moves. The average brat attends 10 schools in 12 years - some move as many as 36 times. They have no "hometowns" to go back to and rarely know their extended families.
Our last move before my father retired was particularly hard. In school I finally had a great teacher, and had to move in the middle of the year. It was time to learn a new address, a new phone number, pick a new room, and make new friends. My sister and I had a moving agreement, with each new house we would switch who got the biggest room.
There are positive effects of this lifestyle. Brats learn to get along with anybody, from anywhere. We can move and take risks. We aren't afraid of change. Although some brats become "change junkies" and can't settle down, most have a very developed sense of personal discipline and the ability to adapt quickly.
As a brat I didn't choose to grow up in a military culture, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.