Who Are Military People?

The museum will be focusing on a series of topics over the next year as part of our E Pluribus Unum-GRAICE Under Pressure project. Our Writers in Residence will examine and reflect on numerous topics pertaining to gender, religion, race, identity, culture and ethnicity. In addition to essays, our podcasts and YouTube videos will also examine what makes us-well, us. Please be thinking of ways you can lend your experiences to the wider conversation.

In July 1971 in Paris, France, Jim Morrison, frontman for the band, The Doors, died a rock star death. He was 27. Despite my many young-1960s hours spent listening to The Doors while sitting on the linoleum of my barracks cubicle and leaning against my bunk — I had no car — I don’t have any “I remember where I was” instant with Morrison’s death.

In that same July and on that same continent, I was roughly four and a half hours due east of him, in third-floor walkup Army quarters in Pirmasens, West Germany, now a soldier’s wife instead of an Army personnel clerk. If the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service network in Europe broadcast news of Morrison’s death, I missed it. 

Eight changes of address after Pirmasens, my husband and I were back in West Germany. Now we were on the other side of the country. This time, Elvis had died. This news on the radio gave me the flashbulb moment I missed with Morrison. By then I was near Fulda, in my kitchen, 20 klicks from the East German border, giving my son breakfast. Quaker instant oatmeal. Apple.

So why should I consider Morrison’s death relevant to my experiences? Not that I knew it then but Jim and I had both been military kids. 

Jim Morrison’s father had been a career sailor and was a retired admiral when his son died. My dad had been a career soldier/airman and was a retired Air Force master sergeant when The Doors lost their lead singer in Paris. I doubt my dad noticed. During WW 2, Jim’s father had been a sailor, floating somewhere on the Pacific. My dad, during the same war, had been an aerial photographer, flying somewhere over the Pacific. The glaring difference between Jim and me is that he was famous. I was very much not famous. Jim was seven years older than I was, so he’d had a head start on fame but, seven years later, I still wasn’t famous. Still, as military kids, we shared the life. 

So, are there traceable events in the lives of military dependents, of brats, that make some of us rebel and become the Lizard King, and others to follow an opposite path and be the wife of a career soldier? Since, among my friends, the ways grown brats live their lives range from off the grid living in the wilds of Alaska to establishing post-service Beltway contractor businesses, I’m guessing statistics would show that our life paths are all individual. 

Many of us children of military parents serve in the military services: Francis Warren Pershing, John S. D. Eisenhower, John McCain, the three children of General James McConville, the current Chief of Staff of the Army, my brother, and my sister and me. Some brats become pacifists, such as the members of the mellow rock band, America. Other brats blend into civilian communities as teachers, nurses, middle-management corporate officials, or any of the host of jobs available in the country. Some military-affiliated kids, with less tragic stories than Jim Morrison, also rise to stardom: Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, Ciara, Kris Kristofferson, Amy Adams, and Patton Oswalt. 

As for the parents of brats, despite continual volunteer work in communities and as government employees themselves, spouses of career service members usually don’t attract fame outside the various awards for “spouse of the year,” but fame is not necessary for valued contribution. Value itself resides in being part of the team supporting our country’s warriors.

Military children, drafted into the life often at birth, are a part of the overall population of Americans who take part in the mission of America’s military services. Some may say that spouses and kids are dependapotamuses, brats, straphangers. Of course, some family members are ‘less than supportive.’ Lake Woebegone notwithstanding, no population group is all above average. We’ve all heard, “If the [Service name] wanted you to have a spouse/family, they’d have issued you one!” 

Overall, spouses and brats provide service members with stability, with normal homes to settle in after a day, a week, a month, or a year of military duties. Spouses are sounding boards, absorbing stories from their partners, both of frustration and joy. Children ground the service members in the everyday. 

The support given to service members by their families has military value as attested to by so many promotion photos of family members pinning on the service member’s new rank. If the military services did not value spouses and brats, then Congress would not appropriate, and the DoD would not disburse, the funding necessary for hospitals, health care, and youth activities. The government would not spend money on family housing, transportation of dependents, or shipping mini-vans or other vehicles overseas. There would be no point to large commissaries, youth centers, and dependent schools. If our government did not recognize that families share the purpose of mission with servicemembers, far fewer soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen would have families. 

So who are military people? All of us ID-card holders make up the fabric of the American military structure, with service members as the tip of the spear. Given the money underpinning the DoD, rather than thinking, “if [Service] wanted you to have a spouse/family, …” one official outlook must be, “recruit an individual; retain a family.” No spear consists only of its tip.

Valerie Bonham Moon

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