LA JOLLA — Unprepared for what she would see, Mary Wertsch once watched the film "The Great Santini" and was left shaken by the harshly familiar portrayal of the life she had lived growing up as the daughter of a career Army officer.
"About five minutes into the movie, I had the distinct sensation I was watching my own life," she would later write about the film, which depicts a Marine family in 1962.
The movie included scenes of "mother and kids assembled at airport, nervously awaiting the arrival of the father they haven't seen in a year," Wertsch wrote. "Whole family jammed into an over-packed car, setting off at 0300 hours for a new life, leaving friends and school and all that's familiar behind. Kids lined up on the front steps of the new quarters as their father paces up and down before them, swagger stick in hand, lecturing them on 'troop morale' and demanding assent in the form of a chorus of ear-splitting 'Yes Sirs.'
"It remains one of the pivotal experiences of my life," she concluded, "for that was the night I began at last to realize what it means to have been raised a military brat."
The experience sent Wertsch, 35, on her own exploration of "the legacies we have to understand by virtue of being raised inside the fortress," a research project that the former investigative reporter is turning into a book tentatively titled "Military Brats: The Rearing of the Non-Volunteers."
Personal, Family Conflicts
Wertsch contends that behind the military family's required facade of normalcy are personal and family conflicts bred by the realities of military life: mobility, a rigidly authoritarian family structure, father absence, isolation and alienation from the civilian community, membership in a strict caste system, occasional alcoholism, a backdrop of war and death and the pre-eminence of the military mission.
"It's like there's an invisible member of the family and that's the military mission," Wertsch said. "And that member rules. Whatever's going on, everything is subordinate to that member."
Those factors can produce children who grow up to find adjusting to civilian society and forming personal relationships a difficult, confusing enterprise. Some of the estimated 5 million military offspring never master the skill, Wertsch said.
Wertsch has interviewed about 30 military brats in San Diego, Chicago and other cities, and hopes to include about 50 military children in all. Her anecdotal account, bolstered by military research, shows that nomadic patterns often continue into adulthood; that poor relationships with domineering and frequently absent fathers persist, and that family tensions are often played out in the form of open rebellion by sons and eating disorders among daughters.
Wertsch's work comes at a time when military demographics are changing drastically from the days when soldiers were told that if the military wanted them to have a family, it would have issued them one. As of 1986, the nation's 2.1 million military personnel had nearly 1.2 million spouses and almost 1.7 million children, according to a Department of Defense official.
While the four services are increasingly turning their attention to the needs of these families, Wertsch is concerned about the millions in their 20s through 50s who have already lived the life of military brat.
"Our task as military children is to understand this, grieve over it if necessary and get on with things. That's what I hope my book will do," she said.
Moving Becomes a Habit
Wertsch, who attended 12 schools before graduating from high school, found that the military brats she interviewed typically moved 9 or 10 times themselves. Sometimes the pattern persisted into adulthood. An extreme case is that of a 28-year-old San Diegan who still "moves every two years, not for any job reason, but because his clock goes off," Wertsch said. "He has to move like he did when he was young."
With each move, the man quits his job, severs his romantic relationship and leaves no forwarding address for his friends, even though his moves are all within San Diego, Wertsch said. In recent years he has broken an engagement, left a live-in lover and initiated divorce proceedings against a wife he still loves.
Asked by Wertsch if there is anyone from his past he could contact, the man said, "I have a very close friend right here in San Diego, and he would like to talk to me. But I know I just won't pick up that phone."
Though they are insiders in the closed and protective military world, military children are awkward outsiders in the more complex real world, where the black and white order of military structure gives way to subtler shades of gray, Wertsch believes. When coupled with their nomadic habits, the outsider syndrome leaves some military brats feeling like they never belong anywhere, Wertsch said.