Military families have front seats to history

Circe Olson Woessner

Recently on Facebook, a friend mentioned the difficulties of talking about her military childhood because people think she’s bragging when she speaks about having lived overseas. She admits, “I rarely bring it up any more.”

As the Director of the Museum of the American Military Family, I tell people that in order to understand history, one needs to see it from all perspectives. Military families have often been present during historic events, but much of the time, their experiences are not widely shared.

My husband was overseas conducting multinational exercises on September 11, 2001. I was driving to work listening to the radio when the news of the attacks came over the airways. I remember initially thinking it was a remake of that old radio show, “War of the Worlds.” As it sunk in that it was real, I realized I’d better pick up my kids from their off-base schools, as the base we lived on would go on lock-down. Our lives were about to change.

Military dependent Maile was 14 and living in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1962 during an attempted coup. “Our houseboy started yelling that there was a ‘big smoke’ outside. Dad and I ran to the door and saw a large mushroom cloud over the city, just two blocks away. My father calmly told me to put cushions on the floor in the central hallway, get my sister and lie down on them. I heard tanks, guns, and low-flying aircraft. Our windows rattled with the guns and the bombs. I was very scared for my mother, a 4th grade teacher at the American Community School and for my sister and two brothers who were on a yellow school bus traveling down the same road that the tanks were traveling up.”

Ann was living in Teheran during the turbulent 1970’s. “It was very exciting for a 7th grader to not just hear about people being evacuated, but to have some of those kids in school with you… That was the first time I was really ‘aware’ of world events and how they could impact me personally.”

Cynthia agrees: “I was living in Izmir, Turkey, in 1960 when a military coup took place. There was a curfew, and no one got into the country; no one got out. My older sister was on her way back to Turkey via ship from college and my folks had planned to meet her in Athens, jump on the ship and ride back the rest of the way with her into Izmir. They got stuck in the port city of Çesme, and it took many hours to convince the local officials to let them out on a little ferry boat to Piraeus to get her.”

Bruce was living in a dorm at Wiesbaden High School during the Cuban missile crisis. “We were briefed that it was likely that Russian tanks would invade. We each were given an assigned duty should evacuation take place. We were told we’d meet up with our families in Portugal and be evacuated by sea.”

Chris says, “In 1968, when the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea, my dad was an Air Force Air Rescue pilot on HU-16’s in Okinawa. The military was put on high alert. We kids knew that something bad was going on, but we didn’t know how bad. Years later, I found out that all the moms had one bag packed in case the family members needed to be evacuated, leaving our dads behind. What a testament to the strength of our military moms!”

Sometimes our parents made sure we witnessed history. When I was a toddler, living in Washington DC, my family went to watch the hearse bring President Kennedy’s body back to the Bethesda Medical Center. His assassination made such an impression on my dad; he wanted us to somehow to experience it.

“ We were at Hickam AFB,” Rick recalls, “Dad took us late one night to the MAC Terminal and told us we would want to remember what we saw…one of the first planeloads of POWs coming back to US soil from prison in Vietnam…the planes were stopping to refuel, and the men deplaned for food and rest before continuing their flight. I remember being very proud of them for enduring the years of captivity.”

Hudson says, “I became active in the Civil Rights movement because my experience as a military Brat encouraged me to actualize my religious beliefs. My wife, Betty, and I conducted a lunch counter demonstration in Schwegman’s Department Store in Gretna, Louisiana, in 1964, and we both participated in the James Meredith March Against Fear, which took place in Mississippi in 1966. We were harassed and abused by the Mississippi Highway Patrol. I was dismissed from my ministry at a church in Louisiana because of my position on racial justice.”

Justice was never far from the minds of Barbara and Patsy, a military family who had to live in secret, even as the question of whether banning homosexuals from serving in the military was constitutional, especially when, in 1989, Colonel Grete Cammermeyer came under scrutiny for being a lesbian. When the National Guard began discharge proceedings to dismiss Cammermeyer, Patsy, who was a Colonel herself, became involved in the process.

Barbara says, “I always felt that Patsy, my wife, could have been discovered as being a lesbian at any time during her 37+ years of military service, but never was. She had the most difficult duty of having to dismiss Grete for honestly coming out as a lesbian.”

In 1994, a judge ruled Cammermeyer’s discharge and the ban were unconstitutional, and she returned to duty with the National Guard and served as one of the few openly gay or lesbian people under “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.”

Patsy and Barbara are currently making a documentary film “Surviving the Silence-Love and Impossible Choices” about the experience. Barbara adds, “Now, we feel so very fortunate to finally be able to be a true military family!  We are finally beginning to enjoy the benefits we have been denied for so long.”

Both at home and abroad, military families have had front seats to history in the making–and in some instances– have influenced it. That’s why the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center was established—so that our place in history could be recorded and shared with the world. We military families also serve.



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