My father, Colonel Howard F. Smith, was a career military officer in the U.S. Air Force. He served in the Vietnam War in the 60’s, and Desert Storm in the 90’s. When he was not overseas, he walked through the front door of our home every evening at 5:00 p.m., wearing his blue uniform decorated with ribbons and pins he earned in his 30 years of service to our country.
When he passed away, I requested a pair of the silver bars which were always fastened to his hat. The blue hat with pins was a constant in our home, and it represents the consistent work ethic and military commitment of my father.
Just as a missionary or a pastor is called to the ministry, I believe military personnel and their spouses feel a similar calling. It is a unique person who is willing to invest their very lives in the risky unknown. Unknown danger, unknown housing options, unfamiliar living conditions, constant moving, unpacking, and moving again. One might wonder what kind of toll this takes on the spouses and the children. While I can only hypothesize about a spouse’s point of view; I am able to speak from a kid’s point of view. These are the reflections and values I learned as a Military Brat.
Always, always stand at attention for the National Anthem.
Whether in the movie theater on base, in the classroom or at a football game, we must stand up for the National Anthem. Give the anthem your full and complete attention and respect. No talking. No squirming. No hands in pockets. No hands touching anyone else. No fumbling in your purse.
The National Anthem represents our story; the story of the United States of America, her fight for freedom, and the ones who gave their very lives for the freedom we enjoy. The anthem represents our own grandfathers, fathers, mothers, siblings who risk their lives daily so we can live freely.
If any kid dared to goof around during the National Anthem on base, that kid and his friends were kicked out of the movie theater, game, or classroom. No exceptions.
So my friend, if you ever try to talk to this girl or attempt to do business with me during the National Anthem; expect to be ignored. That’s just the way it is.
Make new friends and keep the old
I remember vividly coming home from school, after laughing and enjoying my friends, and hearing the words, “We got our orders.” That meant we must move to another base, another state, possibly thousands of miles away. It happens frequently. Sometimes we received our orders to move, only to have the location changed again. Flexibility becomes a common character trait.
It takes a person an average of 2 years to become comfortable with friends and settle in to a new community. It is tough on a military family who just begins to warm up to their new friends, then it is time to pack up and leave again.
Tears, fears, lost friendships and the stress of starting all over again can take its toll on a kid. Many of us learn through inevitable trial and error to make friends quickly and support one another. I am often saddened by the friendships I have lost over the years. There were no social networking options to keep us connected. But I gained the ability to make new friends, and the compassion to help others feel included.
When I first attended a big public school in my teens, I heard friends say they went to school with their cousins. I thought it was a joke. I had not lived near extended family. I rarely saw my grandparents, cousins, Aunts and Uncles since my father joined the Air Force when I was 5 years old. A military family rarely has the luxury and support of living close to their extended family, and the children don’t have the same opportunities to know them like the civilian families. We learn to support those around us when anyone is in need.
I am grateful for the opportunities to travel, to see our country from different perspectives and landscapes. I write a funny cursive “r” which I learned in Alabama and I have a mild mix of accents due to living in different regions. I never knew what city to call my hometown. But, the travel helps a kid understand their narrow world from a broader perspective. It is important to me to expose our own kids to travel, world studies, different cultures, and the National news.
Respect the American Flag
We were taught how to respect the American flag. Our instruction included how to fold the flag properly, not to jump up to touch it when we walked near it, not to wave a ragged flag, and the list goes on. As I grew up, I loved to sing songs about America and the flag. How obnoxious my dorm mates must have thought I was as I sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag” at the top of my lungs down the hallway. I did it frequently. Did I mention I attended a college in Canada? Years later, my Trinidadian roommate asked me to kindly quit playing Lee Greenwood’s song, “I’m proud to be an American”.
What can I say? I am a proud military brat. I know our freedom comes at a great cost. I benefit from it every day, I am grateful, and sometimes I gush!
Sacrifice for the greater purpose
There were many times I did not fully appreciate the fact that my dad was a Prosthodontist. Often times when I was having my teeth worked on, young airmen in training would stand around the dental chair to observe. As a junior high student, I didn’t enjoy good looking guys standing around me while I was drooling and having spit sucked out of my mouth. I’ll never forget the day one of the dentists walked into the waiting room and reprimanded me for leaving the chair too early. I sat horrified.
I clearly remember the long days my dad worked to identify bodies from the Canary Island plane crash. He had the job of examining the teeth in order to identify the horrifically burnt bodies. He worked round the clock and changed his toxic clothing outside our house before entering in.
It wasn’t until my twenties when I entered the fabulous home of a local civilian dentist, that I first recognized the contrast between a civilian dentist’s pay and a military dentist’s pay. My father had made a great financial sacrifice when he chose to serve our country. It is admirable.
Do you know there are military personnel and their families who live on the poverty level? Yes, they serve our country daily, and scrape to make ends meet.
Respect a person’s title and leadership
Military kids learn to call people by their official titles. This gives military personnel the respect they have earned. Everyone is addressed by their rank. We answer those in authority with a “Yes, Ma’am” or ”No, Sir”.
We may not personally believe in the political decisions of our leaders, but they deserve our respect. This is a biblical principle as well. Submit to those in leadership, even if they are unreasonable. That is my role. The Word of God tells us our leaders will have to give an account to God.
When my son was in fourth grade, we attended a Pearl Harbor reenactment downtown. It was a rainy school day, but I thought this was a great learning opportunity for our boy. We stood in the small crowd, squeezed together under the umbrella and listened to Veterans reenact radio announcements from Pearl Harbor. They read the names of local heroes whose lives were lost that day. My son soaked it all in. I nudged him to shake the hands of the Officers who stood in their decorated uniforms. We thanked them for their service.
“Even though we feel shy about it, and don’t always know what to say,” I teach my boys, “always shake the hand of a Veteran and thank them for their service on our behalf”.
Stand up for what you believe in
I don’t remember the day my father left for Vietnam. My mother tells us that I made such a scene crying in the airport, that everyone around me was in tears. I do remember my father’s phone calls from overseas. Our phone calls were monitored, and whenever we took a turn talking, we had to say, “Over” and wait for clearance to talk again. The scheduled phone calls were brief.
I remember receiving letters from my father, sent in envelopes trimmed in red, white and blue. He sent pictures of himself in his fatigues and holding weapons while riding on the back of a truck. I didn’t know much about the war, only that my father was gone.
One day my mother brought us to Mather Air Force Base where we were stationed in Sacramento, to see President Nixon. There were crowds of people and “hippies” on loud motorcycles. There was shouting and a chaotic feeling in the crowd. We viewed President Nixon stepping off of the plane as the crowd protested and yelled profanities at him. My mother pulled us kids close, and then she told those hippies off! I guess that’s where I first learned to stand up for what I believe in and who I believe in.
Life as a military brat was a good life. I have fond memories of playing kick-the-can in the streets and enjoying the guards at the gate of the base with their fancy salutes. I have a broader world view and an ingrown respect for our country. Life was good and I thank you, Mom and Dad, for the valuable experience of being your military brat.