The play SHOUT! was inspired by Inner Voices, a story written by Army veteran Theresa Duke for the Museum of the American Military Family’s anthology, SHOUT! Sharing Our Truth: An Anthology of Writing by LGBT Veterans and Family Members of the U.S. Military Services. Lora Beldon, the 2017-2019 museum Artist-in-Residence and museum Director Circe Olson Woessner co-edited the anthology.

Inner Voices had exceptionally compelling dialogue and Beldon and Woessner agreed the story would translate well on stage. Playwright Melissa Rayford seamlessly wove together multiple stories contributed by service members, military spouses, brats and allies into a strong, thought-provoking and poignant piece. 

Beldon says, “Shared stories help build and define our identity…help communities learn from each other. People who haven’t experienced what LGBTQ veterans or their families have, can better understand and learn about the subculture through the play.”

In 2018, SHOUT! and the museum’s companion exhibit Still Shouting – Memories from Inside the Closet  received the American Association for State and Local History’s prestigious Albert B. Corey Award, gaining national recognition for the museum. 

SHOUT! debuted in Richmond, VA, on September 22, 2019 and received positive reviews. 

Rayford, who also directed the Richmond performance said, “It is our hope…that we create a production to be used by any theatre group wishing to produce this subject matter.”

While the 2020-2021 Covid pandemic sidelined further stage performances, it did not stop Beldon and Woessner from collaborating with Dr Deborah Cohler (San Francisco State University) and Dr. Erica Chu (Truman College) to create educational materials based on LGBTQ and military history and stories in the script to help enhance the audience experience and to provide further education by facilitating post-play discussion.

In December 2020, Los Angeles based director, Herb Hall led nine actors in a virtual reading of SHOUT!.

Navy veteran Kayt Peck reviewed the online reading saying, 

“I applaud the Museum of the American Military Family in their efforts to acknowledge LGBTQ service members, especially those who spent years, even decades serving in silence, protecting a country that did not recognize them as worthy citizens. This remains a dedicated mission for the Museum even as Covid makes live theatre an impossibility.

“SHOUT! accomplishes a critical need by making discussion of gays in the military not simply a discussion of a concept but also showing the impacts on real people and acknowledging the talents and dedication of LGBTQ service members. Those talents help make the military the efficient and effective component of society that it can and must be.”

Hall will be directing a virtual one-day matinee performance of SHOUT! on June 27, 2021 at 2 PM PDT.  The museum board and cast are raising funds to cover expenses through a dedicated fundraising platform. 

Air Force Spouse Aimee Hanebeck, one of the many volunteers working tirelessly to ensure the play moves forward, says, 

“This is an important work of theater and a source of great pride for the museum to have curated the stories for the play. In this innovative time of a post-Covid exposed world, artists have found ways to bring their craft to their audience, and as such, SHOUT! will be available in an online performance.

We would like to invite you to be a part of this project. As a nonprofit, the museum is sustained entirely by donations from patrons.  In order to uphold the dignity of this script, we have set a goal to fairly compensate the actors and staff, record the performance, and make it available for greater circulation and for use in academic and corporate settings.”

Volunteers have set up a dedicated Fundly account, and anyone who contributes to it will receive a  link to the June 27th performance.

The museum is a 501c3 all-volunteer non-profit located in Tijeras, New Mexico, seven miles east of Albuquerque. Visit the museum’s webpage to learn more about SHOUT!

An Interview with Mary Edwards Wertsch

By Circe Olson Woessner

April is the Month of the Military Child, and who better for me to interview in April than brat author Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress?

Best-selling author Pat Conroy (The Great Santini) was a major supporter of Mary’s research and writing. He wrote the introduction to her book, saying, 

“From Mary’s book I discover that I speak in the multi-tongued, deep-throated voice of my tribe. By writing this book, she handed me a visa to an invisible city where I am welcomed for the first time as a native son. Her book speaks in a language that is clear and stinging and instantly recognizable to me,  yet it’s a language I was not even aware I spoke. She isolates the military brats of America as a new indigenous subculture with our own customs, rites of passage, forms of communication, and folkways…”

Mary and I have known each other for over a decade. While most of us think of Mary as an author and subject matter expert in the topic of military brat cultural identity, few know she is a very talented artist. I recently interviewed Mary via email to talk about her book and also find out what she’s been up to since we last talked.

CW: I recently interviewed a military spouse artist who paints what she knows. Your book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress certainly is a topic you know something about. But, before you researched and wrote a book about brats, what did you know about brats?

MEW: What a good question. No one has ever asked me that before.  If anyone had asked me, in my young adult years, what I knew about military brats, I’m sure I would have replied, ‘Well I am the daughter of a career Army officer, so I am a military brat myself.  It’s my lived experience.  So what do you want to know?’  In other words, I would have assumed that I already knew everything important to know about brats.  I would have been wrong.  

In retrospect, I think this is a perfect example of how we don’t know what we don’t know.  I didn’t realize there was a lot more to know until I saw the movie “The Great Santini,” made from Pat Conroy’s powerful novel, which I subsequently read.  I was dumbfounded.  How could that family be so like my own?  And that prompted a zillion questions in my mind.  What have other brats experienced?  Is it possible our families were shaped in similar ways by the military experience?  Is it possible WE were shaped similarly by it?  Would that shaping constitute a kind of “roots” that we had assumed, erroneously, we lacked?  To what extent do we continue to be affected by that life after we’ve grown up and made our way, as most of us do, in the civilian world?  To put it another way, was it possible that millions of military brats have been raised in an intense ethnic root culture that had been hiding in plain sight, unknown to others and even, shockingly, to ourselves?

 I did not know the answers to any of these broad questions, let alone to the many, many more specific questions prompted by them. But I knew what to do. I was a journalist; I knew how to research.  And I knew there is no better reason to write a nonfiction book than passionately wanting to read a book on that subject and discovering that none exists. 

When I began my interviews with other brats, I found epiphany in every single conversation.  Every conversation brought new light.  There was so very much that I—we—did not know, and it was going to be my great privilege to follow that compelling trail of questions.

CW: Before your book, were there other books, or work out there looking at military brats, the brat culture?

MEW: None.  I searched exhaustively in university libraries and bookstores, but there was no book or other research even remotely close to what I had hoped to find, which was a book explaining my culture of origin and how it shaped its children.  The only things I found were scholarly articles on a few pieces of our experience by researchers funded chiefly by the Department of Defense, and these were on the subjects of interest to DoD—namely, the effects on children of wartime father loss, and of frequent moves.  There were also articles on domestic violence in the military which included statistics on children. There were articles about military families, and I collected and read as many as I could track down. But in no case did a researcher take a few steps back and say, “Hey, there are powerful defining patterns here that compare to what is found in cultures around the world!  We are looking at a previously unidentified culture that is the defining cultural identity for every child raised within it!”   

There are, I think two main reasons why this did not happen.  

First, the research was guided by the rather narrow interests of the Department of Defense, which, in a nutshell, wanted to know how the presence of children affected the military mission.  The military is not a child-centric society, nor can it be.  Its sole purpose is to carry out its mission, and as an institution it seeks to understand its own moving parts in the context of how they affect all the other moving parts.  Therefore, any research on military families funded by DoD will have a very particular and limited perspective. 

Second, the culture of the “Fortress”, as I call it, is the ethnic root culture of the children, but not, for the most part, of the parents.  About three quarters of uniformed military personnel come from small town and rural America, which we can assume means, generally speaking, that they have civilian, localized roots.  The military culture in which they serve is therefore not a shaping root culture for them.  It is more of corporate culture, and one which they will one day leave to return to civilian life.  

Researchers studying the military have had no institutional or scholarly impetus to focus on the difference between the corporate/institutional military culture and the ethnic, shaping, root culture of the children.  Nor have anthropologists generally, because this Fortress culture is so unlike anything else they study that it has been below the radar, so to speak. We brats do not have any race,  religion, or geographic center common to us all.  In our far-flung diversity, we constitute an ethnicity that does not look like any previously known ethnicity. But we are one, I assert, because we share a common culture and are shaped by that culture in similar ways.  

In cultural anthropology, a culture is defined as a particular group of people with shared values, ideas, traditions, and rules of behavior.  I ask you, does the military have common values, ideas, traditions, and rules of behavior?   Both parents and kids experience this inside the Fortress.  The crucial difference between the military as experienced by parents and the military experienced by children is the powerful shaping effect of roots.

CW: Why did you decide to write the book and who did you write it for?

MEW: I answered the ‘why did I write it’ question in my response to your first question, but as for ‘who did I write it for’, I can say this:  I wrote it for all of us who grew up in the military but thought we had no roots.  Everybody needs to know where they are from.  We thought that precious knowledge, which is a major key to self understanding, was forever beyond our reach.  My book is a rebuttal to that misbegotten idea.  We DO come from someplace, although it is not a place in the conventional sense.  Our “from” is as powerful a force in our lives as that of any geographically rooted person. We carry our “from” within us our entire lives, and it continues to affect the way we live that entire time

CW: Why the title Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress?

MEW: I wanted Military Brats as the main title, because I felt so strongly that this tells both the subject of the book and who it is for.  I also wanted to promote the use of the term ‘military brat’, because at the time I wrote the book, no one used it.  Brats would either say ‘brat’, or ‘Army brat’ regardless of the service branch in which they were raised.  That’s uncomfortable and inaccurate.  We needed a more inclusive term.  The Navy, of course, had tried to promulgate the term ‘Navy junior,’ which did not take very well and which I personally can’t stand.  We are not little clones of our parents.  We are our own spunky, self-reliant, independent selves, thank you very much, and if we successfully navigate our very demanding childhoods, it is because we had to develop, without much help from anybody else, the strengths and the abilities to get us through.       

The subtitle I chose because, first of all, I wanted to convey that what is instilled in us inside the Fortress not only shapes us at the time, but, in the for of psychological legacies, continues to resonate in us our lives through.  Fortress is my term for military culture.  To me it connotes military purpose and lifestyle.  It also suggests an apartness from civilian culture, which is so very different.  Additionally, it suggests a powerful entity that looks sternly at those within, and defiantly at those without

CW: How did you do your research for your book? What was your process?

MEW: As I’ve mentioned, I started in university libraries and in bookstores, first looking for what I assumed would be there but wasn’t, and then looking for related topics that shed light on military families.  After that, I compiled a long list of questions, and set about finding interviewees.  I only interviewed adults who grew up in career military families in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  I did not interview Coast Guard brats, because at the time the Coast Guard was part of the Department of Transportation, not the Department of Defense.  I had to draw the line somewhere! 

I soon realized I did not want more than one interviewee from any family, because I needed to cast as wide a net as possible and hear about as many families as I could.  I also strenuously avoided going to places where I knew I would find military brats but which I feared would skew my results.  For example, I did not go to meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics looking for people to interview.  I tried to have as many referring sources for military brats as interviewees, in order to avoid the bias inherent in one individual’s group of friends.

My list of questions kept growing and changing, but some things I always asked and tracked across interviewees.  I got myself a stack of very wide graph paper, and used it to tally answers, looking always for patterns.

CW: Did you learn something new, once all the data was in, or did you validate something you had already expected?

MEW: Both.  I tried to phrase my questions in as unbiased a way as possible, and to prompt my interviewee to take the conversation in new directions as well.  In this way, I learned about patterns I myself did not experience, but many others did. For example, I found an adulthood pattern shared by a number of interviewees of ending friendships and love relationships on a two-year cycle, without good reason and without fulling understanding why.  I did not have this myself, but it was clearly a pattern shared by many brats. And of course, I also found many things I had experienced mirrored in the lives of others.

 “I talk some about the importance of myth in military families and the military in general. The military is like a Greek drama. You have archetypes walking around all over the place. As Pat Conroy once told me, it is not easy being the child of an archetype.”*

CW: What message do you want people to take away from the book?

MEW: We brats must understand where we are from, and how it affects us.  It is incumbent on us to do so, for if we do not, we live our lives blindly and lose an important part of our own agency. Understanding our ‘from’ within the Fortress empowers us to make conscious use of our many strengths—some of which are rare and much needed in in the civilian communities in which we live–and to break patterns in our lives that are unhealthy or unhelpful.  

I would like to particularly point out, for those brats who still suffer the hurt of family dysfunction, that understanding ourselves and our families of origin inside the Fortress is the only road to reaching compassion, and compassion for those who have hurt us (wittingly or unwittingly), is the only way to be liberated. There are many such hurting brats, unfortunately, because of the high rates of alcoholism and domestic violence in the armed forces.  That was the case with my own family of origin, and I can tell you that the work I did through writing my book was my path to freedom.  That came as a surprise to me, actually, a kind of emotional payoff I had not known was in store.  

But, after studying the pressures and stresses on military families, clearly seeing how those factors exacerbate human frailties, and then understanding how there is little help available for families—especially officer families, where seeking help is too often regarded as a sign of unacceptable weakness—I found myself feeling empathy for all military parents, including, most definitely, my own.  And I almost physically felt my hurt and anger dissolve in tears of compassion for the pain they suffered, and for all they tragically missed in life as a result. Consciously and as fully as possible feeling the pain of others sets aside our own woundedness and lifts us above it.  It’s like it creates an opening for healing love to pour in.

I love this quote from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which I ran across years after writing my book: “Compassion is always born of understanding, and understanding is the result of looking deeply.”

I would add only that I have come to believe that living compassionately, a daily challenge for any human being, is the purpose of life, and it is available to all, wherever we are.  It is not an end point.  It is right now, in the moment, moment after moment.

CW: I remember when I was just starting the museum, and was meeting with some potential collaborators in Albuquerque, you came out to Albuquerque, to help me define and pitch the concept. You were the one that helped me explain that the museum isn’t primarily a history museum, but rather, a cultural museum. At the moment that you said that to the group sitting around the table, it was a lightbulb moment for all of us…Why do you think it’s important to have a museum looking at reserving and curating military family artifacts and stories?

MEW: A museum about the American military family validates our lived experience.  It is a testament to our culture of origin, where children of the Fortress are concerned, and a testament to the corporate culture in which our parents were immersed.  It is the culture which gave meaning and purpose to all our lives.  

A museum gives voice to a culture that had previously not even known the importance of having its own voice. It inspires expression about what we have lived, and what those before us lived. It is a living testimony to the human story in a very particular, mission-driven way of life.   It inspires reflection and urges expression.

A museum is a center of evolving knowledge.  Through the research archived there, and the research the museum inspires and encourages going forward, it  helps us understand who we are, where we’ve been, how we’ve grown, what we’ve sacrificed.  

These are all absolutely essential things if we are to understand ourselves, our families, and our military, and if we are to learn how to qualitatively improve life inside the Fortress for generations to come.  We need our military.  We need our military to be healthy.  We need military parents to be understood and supported.  We need military children to be shaped by a healthy and supportive root culture.

Circe, what you have accomplished in founding and directing the Museum of the American Military Family cannot be overstated.  It is a great gift to all of us and all who follow us.  It was always needed, but it took you and your passion and energy to make it happen.  There is enormous value in what it is now, and immeasurable value in what it will be in the future, as its effects ripple outward.  Thank you!

“The single most important thing teachers should do for brats is also the single most important thing parents should do for them: and that is to validate the military child’s experience and his or her feelings about that experience.”**

CW: You donated several boxes of books to the museum– most of which you used as references when you wrote your book. I like leafing through them and seeing your notes in the margins or highlighted areas. Why did you give them up?

MEW: It’s hard to give away old friends like those, but I wanted those books and papers to be useful to others.  Some of them are very hard to obtain, and others will be eventually.  It is important to future research to see the efforts and the limitations of prior research.  I want MAMF to be a research center for people who want to understand military families of the past and the present, and help those of the future.

CW: At one point, I heard you were working on a second book about belonging. Are you still working on that?

MEW: Some years ago, I set it aside, just because I needed a complete break from it for an indefinite period, in order to approach it with a refreshed mind.  I still think about it, though.  If I come to think the writing process could yield something truly useful and meaningful to others, I will give it another go.

CW: Besides being a meticulous writer, you’re a talented artist. I’ve seen some of your work on your Etsy Store. It’s very meticulous as well—and beautiful. Have you always painted?

MEW: Well, you are very kind.  The truth is, I am learning as I go, which is one of the most rewarding things about it. My mother was an artist and an art teacher, so I naturally picked up the appreciation of art and the desire to paint.  I always admired my mother’s ability to keep up her painting through all those moves.  She moved 50 times as a military wife.  Each time, after getting the household in order, she would find a corner somewhere—such as next to the clothes washer or down in the musty basement—and set up her easel.  It was something she could do for herself, and she always made it happen.

I painted a little in college, but after that, I would not allow myself to paint.  I now see that as very tied to my military bratness; I thought my primary duty was to serve my mission, whatever that happened to be at the time, and painting was something I could never justify, next to the importance of mission.  I always had a mission to serve—either as a journalist, or as an activist for a cause.  That mission-mindedness even extended to reading matter; I allowed myself to read only nonfiction.  What rigidity!  Then about a dozen or so years ago, I just decided to quit thinking and start doing.  I bought a large canvas, painted a scene of cranes in a marsh, and then never stopped.  It was a huge relief to finally allow myself to paint.  That painting still hangs in my living room.

CW: Your recent work is a series of playing cards decorated with animals. What draws you to that subject, and again, who is your audience?

MEW: I’ve always liked the design of playing cards, and I love painting animals.  One day I just decided to experiment with making large (24” x 36”) paintings of face cards with animals dressed in clothing to reflect their imagined personalities.  Very whimsical.  I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do the whole deck and then get it printed as an actual card deck.  It’s been fun and as well as a soothing pandemic project.  The Animal Royalty Deck, as I call it, features all mammals on the face cards.  But then I thought how much fun it would be to paint reptiles, which I’ve always liked.  So now I am more than halfway through completing the paintings for a Reptile Royalty Deck, which is even more whimsical. Each reptile (mostly lizards) is portrayed doing some kind of sport.  Right now, I’m working on a paddle-boarding collared lizard.

Who is my audience for these paintings, and for the card decks?  I have no idea! I actually didn’t paint them for any audience, but just to have fun myself.  (That for me is liberating, because my bratness always worked against letting myself have fun.) My guess is that folks who like my paintings and cards are people who simply enjoy whimsical humor, and who have retained an appreciation for old-fashioned analog games like playing cards.

CW: What is your favorite animal to draw or paint? Why?

MEW: I really couldn’t say, simply because I have loved painting each of them.  I suppose I particularly enjoyed painting the Bengal tiger Queen of Diamonds, and the Greater Kudu King of Spades, because in each case the painting came together quickly. Sometimes I’ve had to paint an animal card several times to get close to what I wanted, but not with those two.

CW: If you were to be dropped off somewhere, anywhere in the world, for a week and told to just paint to your hearts content – – no one would bother you—money is not an object— Food would be brought in—where would you go and why?

MEW: Oh, what a lovely thing to daydream about!  I would want to go somewhere very different and very stimulating, so I could wander about and take it in during the day, and then, with my visual senses well stimulated,  paint at night.  Maybe Tunisia, or Corsica (recently I watched a police procedural set in Corsica, and was blown away by the beauty).  I’ve never been to either, but that would have to be a prerequisite, for maximum stimulation.    

 CW: Any new projects in the works? 

MEW: I have a ways to go on the Reptile Deck paintings, and after that I have some other paintings in mind.  But I am still thinking about that subject of belonging.  It may be time to revisit it.

* Southern Changes managing editor Ellen Spears interviewed Wertsch in June, 1992.

** Samuel L. Britten, Army Brat, TCK interview

My Mom the Superhero

My mother was born and raised on a Tobacco farm way up in the hills of Kentucky, she attended a one room school house until she went high school, from which she proudly graduated from. She was by no means ignorant, being one of the best-read people I’ve ever met.

My father was assigned to Ramstein AFB in what was then West Germany, as there was available housing, he had to go on ahead of us to secure a place for the Jones clan. In the meanwhile, my mother, little brother Davey, and I settled into a VERY small apartment to wait. The place had one saving grace, a swimming pool. I invited my friends over to come swimming, a welcome invitation in the hot Omaha summer. One of my friends just happened to be Black. The four of us quickly changed into trunks and jumped in, the lone occupant, a young girl our age, just as quickly jumped out and ran off, we barely noticed, and spent the rest of the afternoon having fun.

That evening the manager came to our door and told me that all guests had to be pre-approved first. I was totally puzzled. Not so my mother, she may have a sweet southern accent, but both she and my Dad believed in equality, and raised us to be color-blind and judge people on their actions. Mom knew the score and became my personal super-hero that day. She whirled around, gently pushed me out of the way and stuck a finger in the manager’s face.

“We will NOT be submitting our guests for your approval, nor will we put up with ANY of your racist garbage, if I EVEN hear of anything prejudicial towards my sons OR their friends I’ll have the Base legal office put not only THIS apartment off limits but every property owned by your boss off limits”. Oh, hell (first time I’d ever heard my mother curse), I’ll just call them up now!  John Paul, get me the phone”. What happened next was the most egregious case of fawning, kowtowing, and pleading I have ever seen another human go through. Satisfied, my mother dismissed him regally, as a queen military wife should!  I was in awe, and remained that way, even after her passing.

My mom the superhero

–John Paul Jones