5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Modern Nomads Known as Military Brats

For more than 100 years, America has honored the brave men and women who have buttoned up uniforms and sworn to defend the US Constitution against all enemies. Each November, Americans give thanks to all who have served on Veterans Day. And at the end of each May, we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, dying in service to our country. But it isn’t until recently that military spouses and military children have been recognized for the sacrifices they make while supporting their loved one who serves. Raised as modern nomads, here are five things you probably didn’t know about military brats.

It’s not uncommon for civilians to perceive career military officers as rigid authoritarians, like Robert Duvall’s character in The Great Santini, or to regard them as arrogant and full of swagger like Tom Cruise’s character in the Top Gun series. But my career army officer father has never been any of those things.

If I had to assign him a Hollywood doppelganger, it would be Alan Alda’s version of Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H. Not only does my dad look a lot like the esteemed actor, with the same dark brown (and now silver) hair and brilliant blue eyes, but he was also very good at his job, approachable, and down to earth.

Alan Alda and the gang from MASH

So when I told my dad that I appreciated how hard he worked during the 20 years he was in the US Army, but that my mom’s “job” as a military spouse was way harder, he wholeheartedly agreed. 

About halfway through my dad’s military career, President Ronald Reagan formally recognized the commitment that military spouses make to the armed forces when their loved one joins the military. Since that proclamation in 1984, the Friday before Mother’s Day honors the important role that military spouses play as the glue that holds military families together. 

The month of April is now recognized as the Month of the Military Child. While there is no federally recognized day for military brats (yet), Military Brats, Inc. launched Military Brats Day on April 30, 2016. As the group continues to petition Congress to formalize the day to acknowledge and thank military children, it continues to be celebrated on the final day of April. 

April is the Month of the Military Child (#MonthoftheMilitaryChild or #MOMC), including two special days that give you a chance to show your support and thank military brats for their strength and sacrifices.

  • April 15th – Purple Up! for Military Kids Day. Wear purple and share your photos on social media using the hashtag #purpleup
  • April 30th – Military Brats Day. Send a shout out to your favorite military kids via social media using the hashtag #NationalMilitaryBratsDay


A child stands on his Dad's Army boots

1. The Term “Brat” is Not Offensive to Military Kids

Typically used to describe a spoiled child behaving badly, most kids (and their parents) don’t get warm fuzzies from the word brat. But the term “brat” is not offensive to military kids raised in military families. Instead, it is an expression that unites us as proud members of a unique military community of modern nomads.

So why are military kids called brats?

It is believed to have ties to the British military that pre-date the American Revolution. When wives and children were granted permission to accompany their British military service member to an assignment, they were referred to as a British Regiment Attached Traveler, or BRAT. Over the years, the term evolved to describe American military children.

Fun Fact: Many modern day military brats will tell you that B.R.A.T. stands for Born Resilient And Tough.

Girl Packing Up Belongings to Move - Pixabay

2. Military Brats Move an Average of 10 Times

The average military brat moves ten times during his or her childhood. According to the School Superintendents Association, that’s three times more often than civilian kids. 

My family moved 12 times during my dad’s army career. Because I’m the oldest and my family moved more frequently in the first half of my dad’s army career than in the second, my childhood moves with the military exceeded the average. However, my youngest sister moved less than five times before my dad retired when she was in middle school.

Sage Advice:  Hear how moving frequently as a military brat shaped my views of the world in this episode of the Uncovering Kansas podcast.

Kids in classroom

3. Military Kids Typically Live and Attend Public School with Civilian Children

Another common perception about military kids is that they spend their childhoods confined to military bases and attending Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). While stationed stateside, 80% of military brats live off post and attend private and public schools throughout the United States.

When they are stationed overseas, military children often attend DoDDS so that they can be instructed in English and remain aligned with educational requirements when they return to the US. However, they don’t always live on post. And when they do live in military housing, there are still many opportunities to interact with the locals.

When my family lived in the Netherlands, I attended an international high school with US, British, Canadian, and German sections, which gave my sisters and me many unique opportunities to learn foreign languages, celebrate diverse holidays, and experience different teaching techniques. Additionally, we had one hour of instruction by a local Dutchman each week who taught about the culture, geography, history,  language, and food of the Netherlands.

4. Military Brats Develop Unique Coping Skills

Whether it’s frequent moves during peacetime or the stress of a parent being deployed to a combat zone, military brats are challenged to develop unique coping skills. While generalizations never apply to 100% of any community, military brats often possess specific qualities. Characteristics of military brats often include being resilient, adaptive, and worldly.

Military hat by handwritten note

Kids Who Grow Up in Military Families are Resilient

Because children in military families are asked to frequently uproot their lives by moving from one assignment to another, they develop a unique resiliency that isn’t typically part of a civilian childhood. And the nation’s military needs rarely align perfectly with the school year. So military brats are often expected to not only move in the middle of a quarter or semester but to pick up the curriculum, instructional materials, and timelines of their new school without missing a beat.

While my dad was stationed overseas without my mom or me during the Vietnam War and was occasionally away for several weeks at a time when I was growing up, I never knew the absence that navy families do when their sailor is at sea for months at a time. And I certainly can’t personally appreciate the heartbreak of the two million children who have experienced at least one parental deployment since the September 11th terror attacks in 2001.

Military Brats Are Chameleons

By regularly being the new kid in the neighborhood, at school, on the baseball team, and on the dance squad, military brats learn to adapt to new environments, new faces, new rules, and limited historical context. While it’s understandable that children who have known each other since preschool may not instinctively welcome the new kid, it is second nature for military brats to seek out the new kid and bring them into the fold.

Because military brats typically spend much of their childhoods away from their extended families, another way that they adapt is by building deep relationships with friends, neighbors, and other military families who become surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My sisters and I forged a tight bond with an older couple who lived down the street from us in the Netherlands, calling them oma and opa (the Dutch names for grandma and grandpa). And although it’s been two decades, I still keep in contact with my parents’ closest friends, who were like aunts and uncles, and their children, who were like cousins.

Military kids develop a worldly view.
My sister and I on a family vacation to the Netherlands when we lived in Germany.

As Modern Nomads, Military Brats Develop a Worldly View

Whether military brats move from DC to Dallas or from Georgia to Germany, they are exposed to different celebrations, cultures, expressions, foods, and history. So when a third-grade class in St. Louis is learning fun facts about the Washington Monument from a textbook or video, the military brat has likely been to the top of the stone obelisk. And when a middle school class in Atlanta is reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the military brat has likely attended a World War II memorial service at the Normandy American Cemetery on a cliff above the landing beaches in France.

A military mom embraces her military brat

5. The Impact of a Nomadic Childhood Follows Military Kids into Adulthood

While I wouldn’t change my upbringing for the world, my childhood as a modern nomad means that my kids have never (and will never) get to visit one of the more than 10 homes I lived in as a child. When new acquaintances ask where I grew up, my answer isn’t “Kansas City” or “Washington, DC” or “Germany.” Instead, my response is the military kid’s common refrain: “I’m a military brat, so I lived all over” or “I don’t have a hometown.”

And don’t even get me started on what it’s like to answer all of those security questions required to access my bank accounts, 529 plans, and retirement funds online.

  • “Street you grew up on” — Hmmmm, let’s see, there were more than ten of them.
  • “Name of your second grade teacher” — I had two second grade teachers, one in Germany and one in Maryland. Do I get points for getting the geography question correct?
A girl blowing dandelion seeds in a green field.
The military brat motto is "Children of the world, blown to all corners of the world, we bloom anywhere!" And that's why the official flower of the military child is the dandelion. Like this hearty flower, military kids can put down roots and bloom anywhere!

Poems About Military Brats

The following military brat poem is credited to “Anonymous” and published at the end of my friend’s military brats book, An Army ABC Book.

The Military Child

My hometown is nowhere.
My friends are everywhere.
I grew up with knowledge that home is where the heart is and the family is.
Mobility is my way of life.
Some wonder about roots, yet they are as deep and strong as the mighty oak.
I sink them quickly, absorbing all an area offers and hopefully giving enrichment in return. 
Travel has taught me to be open.
Shaking hands with the universe, I find brotherhood in all men.
Farewells are never easy.
Yes, even in sorrow comes strength and ability to face tomorrow with anticipation.
If when we leave one place, I feel that half my world is left behind,
I also know that the other half is waiting to be met.
Friendships are formed in hours and kept for decades.
I will never grow up with someone, but I will mature with many.
Be it inevitable that paths part, there is a constant hope that they will meet again.
Love of country, respect and pride fill my being when Old Glory passes in review.
When I stand to honor the flag, so also do I stand in honor of all soldiers,
And most especially, to the parents whose life created mine.
Because of this, I have shared in the rich heritage of military life.
~ Anonymous

And this poem by Whispers Unheard is commonly called the military brat poem.

I Am a Military Brat

I am a military brat
And you know what? I’m proud of that
I have an understanding, that I don’t deserve
I have an understanding, of parents that serve

I have an open mind
I can see, when majority are blind
I’ve seen a world, where digging in trashcans is fun
And where you don’t know where your next meal comes from

I’ve seen history be written before my eyes
I’ve seen people, who’ve lived off of lies
I have relived the lives, of those who are no more
By walking in their footsteps, hungry to explore

I’ve climbed castles that are in the middle of the sea
I’ve been apart of a world, that’s bigger than me
I’ve had bombs right outside my back door
I’ve had peace thankfully be restored

I am not against difference, like so many here
I am here to show you, diversity isn’t what you need to fear
It’s not what you wear, or what you’re parents make, that sets you apart
Because really what’s real, is what’s inside you’re heart

So next time you see difference, please think of me
Think about that person, who they could be
Don’t label them on who you think they are
Because if you do, you’ll never go far

I am a military brat
And you know what? I’m proud of that
Now I’ve given you, the knowledge most need
You now have the steps necessary to succeed
Thanks to this military brat

~ Whispers Unheard

Famous Military Brats

If you grew up in a military family, you’re in good company! Did you know that these famous people are military brats?

  • Amy Adams, the actress from Julie & Julia and Enchanted was born in Italy while her father was serving in the U.S. military 
  • Actress and The Honest Company founder Jessica Alba grew up on Air Force bases in Texas, Mississippi, and California
  • NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen was born on a military base in California as part of his father’s 21 year career in the U.S. Air Force
  • Singer, songwriter, record producer, dancer, actress, and fashion model, Ciara, is a military brat whose mom and dad both served in the U.S. Army
  • Singer and songwriter John Denver was an Air Force brat. His song “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” made famous by folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary is considered to be an anthem for generations of military kids.
  • Kathie Lee Gifford, co-host of Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, was born in France while her father was stationed there as a US Navy Chief Petty Officer
  • Mark Hamill, best known as Star Wars‘ Luke Skywalker, is a U.S. Navy brat who graduated from high school at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan
  • Two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Mia Hamm credits her time living in Italy while her father served in the U.S. Air Force for sparking her interest in soccer
  • American rapper Wiz Khalifa‘s upbringing in a two parent military family included tours in Germany, England and Japan
  • Photographer Annie Liebovitz‘s passion for photography began when her family was stationed at an Air Force base in the Philippines during the Vietnam War
  • Melrose Place actress Heather Locklear‘s father served in the U.S.  Marine Corps
  • Actress Julianne Moore said her upbringing as a U.S. Army brat gave her “a sense of universality”
  • Lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison, was a U.S. Navy brat
  • Tia and Tamara Mowry, the twins from the ’90s sitcom Sister, Sister were born in Germany while both parents served in the U.S. Army
  • NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal grew up on Army bases around the country
  • Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M., is an Army brat
  • Moonlighting detective and Die Hard tough guy Bruce Willis was born in West Germany during his father’s military service
  • Many years before she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line, U.S. Army brat Reese Witherspoon lived in Wiesbaden, Germany
  • Golf legend Tiger Woods is an Army brat

Do You Know a Military Brat?

Of the 15 million estimated military brats in the US today, about 1.2 million are under the age of 18 and spending their childhoods as part of military families. While military brats give up many childhood experiences, such as the chance to plant deep roots or having a parent at home rather than far away for extended periods of time, this special military community also builds strong bonds, develops important life skills, and enjoys incredibly unique experiences.

Thank you for sharing!

20 thoughts on “5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Modern Nomads Known as Military Brats”

  1. Oct 18, 1971 I came home to a blue AF staff car. My dad was killed as a FAC in Laos.
    July 1972 I enlisted in the AF, one year later my sister also enlisted.

  2. I am a military brat that learnt many languages, but I was always told my dad that I can’t go with him. He told me when I was a little bit older he wanted his family safe, but what he experienced he has to see a VA counselor for what he feels everyday. I looked in our family history and we have a blood line of angry military men. Then I was more stronger than I have ever felt.

  3. This is a fascinating and informative post. I didn’t know that Military Brats move an average of 10 times. It’s pretty challenging for families. But for sure, they develop unique coping skills in tough environments.

    1. I made it to 12 schools in my first 12 years of school. By the time I registered for the draft at the US consulate in Frankfurt am Main I had spent half of my life out of the country. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
      Then I joined the army.

  4. I am an Army Brat, since 1971 until 1990 when I joined the Army and kept my travels going. I went to numerous schools in my time. Berlin-77-80/ Charlotte, NC 80-83 / Frankfurt GM 83-85 / Giessen, GM 86-87 / Cheatham County High School 88 / Hillwood HS, Nashville TN 88-90. I will always treasure my time as an Army Brat I loved it, but I do get lonely from time to time thinking of how alone I was sometimes in different countries.

    1. I bet living in Berlin in the late 1970s was quite an experience. Have you been back since the Wall fell to see how much it’s changed?

  5. I’m a Navy BRAT who enlisted and went on to serve 20 years in the Marine Corps. My girlfriend is a Marine Corps BRAT. Both of us are very strong, adventurous, practical, self sufficient, and emotionally stable in almost any situation. For those of you who think growing up in one place is great, and having deep roots is good, all I can say is thank goodness I didn’t have to grow up as close and narrow minded as my biological relatives!! I have my roots, but they go sideways, not down. Challenges are just another thing to overcome, not drive me down. We are the new wave that bring zest to life!

  6. I found this post fascinating as I grew up in the same neighborhood during my entire childhood. And I’ve only moved six times as an adult. I love the military brat’s motto and learning about some well-known military brats. I think growing up in a nomadic lifestyle instills some amazing leadership, cultural and social skills.

    1. It was an unconventional childhood, that’s for sure. While I’ve often daydreamed about what growing in one spot would have been like, I treasure the experiences I had!

  7. This is really a great post. Thanks for writing it. My husband and I are both retired Air Force and we have 5 children, or military brats. Our oldest is currently serving in the Air Force overseas. They all definitely possess the traits you refer to in this article. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. A huge thank you to you, your husband, and your son for your service! I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Being a military brat is definitely a unique childhood and one that is near and dear to my heart. So much so, that my sister and I founded a scholarship for military dependents attending our alma mater a few years ago!

  8. Jenn | By Land and Sea

    This is an interesting post. I’ve always known military gets to “see the world” but never thought about it applying to their kids.

  9. Thanks for sharing this Sage. I loved it and certainly have never given much thought about the impact on the “military brat”. I agree that the characteristics a child would have to develop would benefit him or her throughout her life, I also find it very sad that the child would have no “roots” or a place to call “home”.

    1. I’ve often longed for roots and one place to call home. But, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to give up all of the experiences I had. I think what’s most important is to love the life you live and embrace its benefits.

  10. This is a moving post. I can only imagine the life of military kids and what sacrifices they must be making. When you are not rooted at one place, it must be tough for you, But at the same time, you get to live at so many different places. Which must be a unique experience in itself.

    1. You’ve summed it up perfectly. There is a lot that military kids give up to move around the world with their family, but oh the places they get to go! 🙂

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