In 1980, journalist and military brat Mary Edwards Wertsch saw the movie version of novelist Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini." "The overall effect on me," she wrote later, "was like being struck by a thunderbolt. . . . For the first time in my life I saw that . . . I (was) . . . the offspring of a lifestyle that is unique, intense, demanding, steeped in characteristic rules and values--and a lifestyle that literally millions of children have shared." * The movie inspired Wertsch to spend five years examining that experience. In her just-published book, "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress," 80 military brats tell their own stories, of the creation of "little warrior" sons and "invisible" daughters, of the high incidence of alcohol and child abuse on military bases, of resilience--and pain--born of rootlessness. * In turn, Wertsch's research inspired Pat Conroy. In his introduction to "Military Brats," which is excerpted here, Conroy writes: "Mary takes the testimony of these children of the military experience and tells us what it means. . . . She lets us know we . . . belong to a hidden, unpraised country. . . . This book is our acknowledgment."
I WAS BORN AND RAISED ON federal property. America itself paid all the costs for my birth and my mother's long stay at the hospital. I was a military brat--one of America's children in the profoundest sense--and I was guaranteed free medical care and subsidized food and housing until the day I finished college and had to turn in the ID card that granted me these rights and privileges. The sound of gunfire on rifle ranges strikes an authentic chord of home in me even now.
My father was a fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps and fought for his country in three wars. I grew up invisibly in the aviator's house. We became quiet as bivalves at his approach, and our lives were desperate and sad. But when the United States needed a fighter pilot, we did our best to provide one. Our contribution to the country was small, but so were we most of the time, and we gave all that we could.
I think being a military brat is one of the strangest and most interesting ways to spend an American childhood. The military brats of America are an unorganized tribe, a federation of brothers and sisters bound by our uniformed fathers. We are an undiscovered nation living invisibly in the body politic of this country. There are millions of us scattered throughout America, but we have no special markings or passwords to identify each other when we move into a common field of vision. We grew up strangers to ourselves. We were transients, we came and went like rented furniture, serviceable when you needed it, but unremarked upon after it was gone.
I WAS DRAFTED INTO THE MARINE CORPS ON THE DAY I WAS born, Oct. 26, 1945, and I served the Corps faithfully and proudly for 21 years. I moved more than 20 times, and I attended 11 schools in 12 years. My job was to be a stranger, to know no one's name on the first day of school, to be ignorant of all history and flow and that familial sense of relationship and proportion that makes a town safe for a child.
By necessity, I made my own private treaty with rootlessness and spent my whole life trying to fake or invent a sense of place. Home is a foreign word in my vocabulary and always will be. At each new base and fresh assignment, I suffered through long months of trying to catch up, of learning the new steps required of those outsiders condemned to inhabit the airless margins of a child's world. None of my classmates would ever remember my name when it was time to rotate out the following summer. My family drifted in and out of that archipelago of Marine bases that begins with the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and stretches down the coast to Parris Island in the South.
My mother, the loveliest of Marine wives, always claimed to her seven children that we were in the middle of a wonderful, free-flowing life. Since it was the only life I'd ever lived, I had no choice but to believe her. She also provided me with the raw material for the protective shell I built for myself. As excuse or rationalization, it gave me comfort in the great solitude I was born into as a military brat. My mother explained that my loneliness was an act of patriotism. She knew how much the constant moving bothered me, but she convinced me that my country was somehow safer because my formidable, blue-eyed father practiced his deadly art at air stations around the South. We moved almost every year preparing for the existential moment (this is no drill, son) when my violent father would take to the air against enemies more fierce than his wife or children.