Growing up military
A documentary illuminates the lives and culture of “military brats,” tipping its hat to a book by a former local resident.
BY STEPHANIE HEINATZ
June 21, 2007
It wasn't the traveling or frequent moves that bothered Jenny Purser.
The Army brat who had both a mother and father in the service was born in Germany.
She lived in Kansas, Washington, Florida, Kentucky, the Netherlands, and now Virginia.
"Overall, moving for me was positive," said Purser, an Army ROTC cadet at the College of William and Mary.
"It had a big effect on my choice of major - international relations."
What was hard, Purser admitted, was that "I never really had a best friend I held onto my whole life."
She made friends in each place she lived, but very few she's stayed in touch with.
According to "Brats: Our Journey Home," Purser's experience is not unique.
The feature-length documentary, which examines the subculture of military brats,
is largely based on a book by an author with strong ties to Hampton Roads.
Free screenings hit the region this week.
The culture is illustrated on the big screen through archive films, home movies and interviews with brats.
They talk about growing up around the world and getting exposed to new cultures.
They reflect on living in integrated neighborhoods decades before the civil rights movement
and of barely knowing their cousins, aunts and uncles.
And they detail the feelings of living with a family torn apart through frequent wartime deployments and separation.
"My mom really raised us because my dad was gone a lot," Purser said.
Only now that her father is retired are they nurturing the father-daughter relationship civilian families frequently
get a lifetime to foster, she said.
The film's director, Donna Musil, has said the 1991 book, "Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,"
by Mary Edwards Wertsch, set the stage for this documentary exploration of the brat culture.
Wertsch has strong ties to Hampton Roads.
Her father retired out of Fort Monroe as a colonel in 1966.
She graduated from Hampton Roads Academy and the College of William and Mary and then worked as a reporter at the Daily Press.
"All of us grow up thinking that we don't come from anywhere," Wertsch said in an interview.
"I definitely remember thinking other people have backgrounds, other people have hometowns. We don't."
Wertsch, who now lives in St. Louis, didn't fully understand that her experience was not unique
until she saw "The Great Santini," a movie based on the novel about a Marine Corps family.
"On some level you know there are lots and lots of military families," she said.
"But you never compare notes."
When Wertsch couldn't find a complete book on the subject or on its subculture, she wrote one.
"I understood at a gut level that if I could only understand what this culture was about,
I could understand myself, my family and where I came from," she said.
What she discovered, and what she explains in her book, is that "roots are not a geographic place.
It's a culture.
It's a way of life.
We are very much formed and effected by being raised in the military."
Her research started with one question:
Were there enough patterns in what military brats experienced and the way they were raised
to constitute a kind of culture that all brats have in common?
"I only had to do a few interviews to see how many ways we were alike," Wertsch said.
"It crossed the lines of gender, race and class."
And it unites people.
"It's easier when you meet somebody when they're from a military background," Purser said.
"They've basically lived your life.
They understand, whereas a lot of people don't really get it."
Even though the book was published more than 15 years ago, Wertsch said even today's brats
can benefit from knowing they are part of something.
"The names of the wars are different, but the core experience is still the same," she said.
"The military is all about readiness to wage war.
It's always going to be an authoritarian environment.
It's not ever going to be a democracy."
The book does delve into hard topics - like fathers who attempt to run a family like a military unit.
"But we can be proud of where we come from," Wertsch said.
"I am proud to be a military brat and I would have it no other way.
The military is a ... place where life is about serving a mission bigger than yourself."