Growing Up Military Overseas Meant Certain Change

I’m pleased to introduce a former WUSF colleague who grew up in a military family with three sisters and both parents serving as officers. I asked her to reflect on growing up overseas.

By Natasha Samreny

In 2001, my dad retired from the Air Force, and CENTCOM activated my mom around 9/11. We stayed in Tampa, and any dreams of returning to life overseas faded more every year.

My mom dressed us up in coordinating outfits for every major out-of-country flight. We were easier to spot in case we got separated.

I liked moving. We PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station) when one or both of my military parents were assigned or offered new jobs in another location. They decided based on their professional goals, our family’s input, and of course where the government said they were needed. But for my sisters and me, the moves ensured change and growth: traveling, making new friends and adventures in another country.

I never thought of the U.S. as home, I was young when we left for Panama. Happiness meant playing with my sisters in the tropical rains. Our tan bodies and sun-bleached hair thrived on mangos and pineapple juice. Germany was colder, and “home” changed from a two-story house-on-stilts to a modest apartment converted from old Army barracks. But we adjusted because that’s what we knew.

Two major factors eased the moves: my parents, and base living.

My mom immigrated from Ecuador as a child, learning English on the fly. My dad grew up in Pittsburgh’s mixed Hill District, where Saturday morning bakery and sandwich-shop aromas carried countries through the streets. Both educated dreamers from loving families, when they sat us down to talk about our next trip, challenges became “opportunities”. We spent holidays trekking through Europe, catching our fondest memories.  Bases overseas offer ready-made community living for American families relocating to foreign countries. We all came from somewhere else. Like kids at summer camp, our time was short, so we made the most of it.

When we returned to the States, a decade passed before I called it home. I felt like I was betraying everything I knew; if I accepted this final destination, I accepted the suffocating thought that I didn’t know how to change or start again without relocating. This was the normal I had come to expect and need from life.

Celebration, Tradition, Ritual: The Long Gray Line

The Citadel Class of 2008 forms The Long Gray Line.

I’ve just lived the quickest 4 years of my life so far. I’m not sure that is how my son would put it however. As the mom of a cadet at The Citadel we’ve measured the past 4 years by how many Parents Weekends and Corps Day weekends have passed.  For the cadets going through the rigors of the 4th Class System and navigating the ins and outs of the cadet chain of command, I’m sure it has felt like every bit of 4 years.

Wednesday of this week marked the beginning of final exams for the cadets.  I sent a text to my son Tuesday to congratulate him on finishing his last class of his undergraduate career. I also asked if it felt strange.  His reply? “Yeah, weird.”

I’ve experienced a lot of changes in my lifetime. To help me cope with these transitions I’ve developed a few rituals. The changes we go through are a natural course of life, but for so many they signify a finality that is hard to bear. In my view, transitions, like graduation, are the happy changes of life and should be celebrated. It doesn’t mean that I won’t tear up next Friday at my son’s commissioning ceremony and the graduation parade which includes the Long Gray Line.

Toward the end of the final parade of the year, the graduating seniors are called out of their companies.  They line up shoulder to shoulder down the length of the parade field.  On command they march forward away from their companies and toward the review stands and their family and friends.  They leave their friends and move toward their new life as graduates. I watched this parade once my son’s knob (freshman) year. I’m sure I’ll have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as they move forward.  They will be tears of joy.

It took me 7 years to complete the course work for my master of divinity degree. My final semester at Columbia Theological Seminary I finally allowed myself to think about graduation.  Up to that point I was never sure if life circumstances (and finances) would allow me to complete the work and obtain my degree. Back then I had small little rituals to help me live into my graduation. I visited the web site of the church I was baptized in as an infant.  I sent notes to people who had helped me along the way.

The Class of 2008 as they cross the parade field.

To help get ready for my son’s graduation from The Citadel, I’ve developed other rituals.  One ritual is this blog. Writing these blog entries has helped me to document some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope my experiences and insights may help other Citadel parents down the road. Another is a new group I posted to Facebook for parents of cadets on military contracts and parents of graduates with children in a branch of the military. With the advent of Facebook many parents of Citadel cadets have joined groups for parents of cadets.  The groups help us connect with each other, share photos and advice. This new group should serve in a similar capacity. Unlike the “regular” liberal arts university I attended, I’ve learned parents of cadets at military schools get to know each other.  If your child goes on to a military career, these friendships between parents continue. For that I am grateful.

I grew up in a family who celebrated milestones and achievements big and small.  I’ve continued that tradition with my children.  We have a celebration for goals achieved and special occasions.  For years, the end of the school year was celebrated with a sparkling cider toast and a small present.

Some graduating senior cadets kick off their shoes and leave them behind when they reach the end of their march across the field.

Next week will be the first college graduation I’ve been through with one of my children. To celebrate the achievement, I looked for just the right gift. A fellow Citadel parent named Paul T. who is also a proud graduate of The Citadel suggested a Lifetime Membership in the Citadel Alumni Association. Paul is also a veteran of the Army and had served in the Armor Branch after his graduation. He has been a tremendous resource for me, and scores of parents, the past several years. I’ve learned to take Paul’s advice.  After all, he was right when he suggested I give my son the movie “Patton” when he found out he would be in the Armor Branch.

I sent a text to Nelson last week to let him know about our graduation gift to him. He had already called on Easter Sunday but called again to say thank you. Two phones calls in one week from him is a record!

Looking ahead to next week, I’m excited more than sad. Yes, it is an ending to what has been a wonderful 4 years. It also marks the beginning of the next chapter in my son’s life. He’ll have a month before he reports to Ft. Benning to begin his training in the Armor Branch.

I will be spending time between now and next week’s ceremonies making some small tokens to present to the various people on campus who have been particularly helpful to me the past 4 years. Several people on campus have served as my “sources” and helped me learn what terms meant, or explained various traditions when I only got the short answers from my cadet.  It wasn’t me spying on him as much as me trying to learn in general about the process he was going through.

My son is being commissioned into the U.S. Army next Friday and graduating next Saturday. He’ll split his time between the friends he has made over the past 4 years and his family. I’ll split my time between seeing my son and the many friends I’ve made over the past 4 years. We are all richer for the experience.

Looking to Honor Moms Who Have Served

Do you know a mom who has served in the military who you would like to honor? The entry below comes directly from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs blog: Vantage Point.

A single mother from Bradenton drove convoys in Iraq while deployed as an Army Reservist. Photo courtesy of The New Study: "Collateral Damage" of War on Florida Families.

In honor of Mother’s Day, we here at VA need your help to thank the women who have undoubtedly shaped our lives. We would like to put together a tribute honoring Veterans who are grandmothers and mothers and the mothers and grandmothers of Veterans. Their service has not only shaped your life but has paved the way for fellow female service members.

Here is how you can help: please send a photograph or a story (no more than 250 words) that details your Veterans’ service and how she has inspired you.

We want to know what life was like growing up on a military base, how you dealt with a deployment, and about the unique mother-child bond. The photographs will be created into a Flickr set and the stories will appear on VAntage Point. 

With each submission, please provide name, branch of service, when they served, and what they are doing now. Please send all information to newmedia@va.gov by Tuesday May 3.

Musings from a Grown Military Child: “What a Brat!”

Lizzy Miles not at all happy about being taken to visit ruins in Turkey, her new home.

By Lizzy Miles

My first memory of being in a foreign country was Christmas Eve, 1978.  I was eight years old and my mother, father and I were staying at the Istanbul Hilton.  My father had been living in Turkey for a few months, and my mother and I had just arrived from the states to join him.  Since they hadn’t seen each other for several months, my dad decided that I would like to attend a children’s Christmas party in one of the ballrooms.  I changed into my party dress (I think it was green) and my dad escorted me downstairs to the party.  Before I knew it, he was gone.

Suddenly, there were what seemed like four hundred children surrounding me and trying to touch me, yelling, “Hello what is your name?  Hello, What is your name?” over and over.  That was the only English the young Turkish children knew, and they were very excited to practice it on the blond American girl.  I remember my eyes welling up with tears and that I was very confused, scared and alone.  My dad only had five minutes to spend alone with my mother before the chaperones would call and tell him to come get me.  He laughs about it now.  I don’t.

The reason we were in Turkey was because my father was a  Judge Advocate General (JAG) Colonel in the Air Force and he specialized in international law.   As a result, we were stationed overseas several times.  I was in Turkey for nine months.  Because my father wanted to get settled before he brought the family over, I ended up living with my aunt and uncle for several months.  While I was living with my relatives, they were transferred from Charleston, South Carolina to Bridgeport West Virginia, so I ended up moving with them.  With that move and the move to and from Turkey, I ended up attending two different second grades, three third grades and two forth grades.  When I was a baby I lived in Okinawa for two and a half years.  I also lived in the Philippines for three years and Germany for three years.  I graduated from high school in Germany.

Lizzy during a happier visit to one of Turkey's historic sites.

I dread the small talk that goes with meeting someone for the first time.  One of the first questions is usually, “Where are you from?” or “Where did you go to school?”.  For me, neither question is easy to answer.  I usually hesitate and sigh and then mumble something under my breath about being born in Nebraska and having lived in Columbus since college and skipping everything else in between.  I don’t like to elaborate because when people discover that I have lived so many places, they usually bombard me with questions and I feel like I am being interviewed. 

It’s very awkward to get the conversation back to a dialogue once the questions start flying.  Do you feel like you were lucky?  What was it like?  What was your favorite place?  How many languages do you speak?  I don’t know quite how to answer these questions because it’s like someone asking you to summarize your entire life into a sound bite.  I don’t know how to compare moving around overseas to living in one place, because I haven’t done both.  I do know that I didn’t appreciate it as much as people think that they would. 

During the summer of 1987 my parents wanted to take a vacation to Ireland and Wales.  I campaigned relentlessly until I got to go to Cleveland.  I also whined my way out of going to Egypt, East Germany and Holland (because I had been there before).  I skipped school trips to Russia and Spain.  You have to remember, I was a teenager.  Basically, I thought I was a pretty unlucky person and here’s why:

  • The driving age was seventeen and the requirements for getting a license in Germany were very difficult, so hardly anyone had cars.  We couldn’t cruise. 
  • We only had one TV station which showed programs that were two years old.  The Today show was on at four in the afternoon.  If sports were on TV, then nothing else was available.  You might find this hard to believe, but I even missed the commercials.  I wanted my MTV.  Radio was the same way – only one station.  My only connection to pop music was Casey Casem’s Top 40 on Sundays. 
  • I longed for a shopping mall like the one in the movie Valley Girl.  In my current events class, we debated whether or not Taco Bell sold hamburgers.  It had been so long since any of us had been to one, we really couldn’t remember.
  • You couldn’t get a decent pizza anywhere in Germany either.  One word: grease.  Interestingly enough, I never got a chance to miss McDonalds because even in the 1980’s there was a McDonalds on every street corner, even overseas.  I have eaten at McDonalds in nine countries and yes, in Germany, the McDonalds have beer.

I agonized over more than cruising, TV, shopping malls and pizza.  Every year a third of the people I knew would move away, or I would be the one moving.  I hated moving because it always seemed to happen just when I had finally gotten settled and had established a set of really good friends.  When we would move to a new place, I didn’t just have a new school and new friends.  I had to learn a new culture, a new language, and adjust to an entirely different environment. 

Because I was an only child, the holidays were the loneliest for me.  I really missed my extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  We rarely were able to telephone family because it cost several dollars a minute to call and this was before e-mail, so the only way to communicate with friends and family was through the post office.  It would sometimes take two weeks to get a letter from someone in the states.  I wrote a lot of letters.

Lizzy and her friend Laura during their visit to Paris as teenagers.

I don’t have all bad memories.  There were things I took for granted.  My sophomore year my best friend Laura came over to my house and on the spur of the moment asked me if I wanted to go to Paris with her family that night.  My dad gave me spending money and I was off!  My drama class went to London to see “real theater.”  How many people can say that they have slept through Les Miserables in London?  Yes, we took it for granted.  My humanities class went to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and the Louvre.  I was in Model United Nations and we traveled to the Hague and met other student delegates from countries like South Africa and Italy.  I learned to drive in a Mercedes Benz because in Germany they are like Fords.  The Autobahn was a given – 132 miles an hour was my top speed.

In the Philippines we lived like millionaires.  We had a live-in maid for ten dollars a week, a gardener who also doubled as a bartender for parties, a sew girl, and our very own private armed guard posted outside of our house with an M16.  (Though it concerns me that we felt that we needed this!).  It was easy to take this all for granted because everyone I knew growing up was in the same situation that I was.  What makes me different here, made me normal in the military dependent world. 

My adjustment to life in the United States after six straight years overseas was difficult at first.  I had trouble getting a driver’s license because the DMV would not acknowledge my driver’s education class as it was not taught in the United States.   For the first time, I was exposed to racial prejudices by some small-minded Americans.  There were ways of categorizing people in the military, but it was by rank, not skin color.  I had to make a new set of friends all over again because everyone from my high school scattered across the country, settling mainly in Texas.  Kids I met thought I was weird because I  pronounced aunt like ‘Auhnt’ instead of ‘ant’ and listened to bands popular in Europe like Falco and Depeche Mode.  I didn’t understand many cultural references.  I didn’t know where the beef was, who the boss was or who shot J.R.

I have a slight twinge of regret now about my overseas experience.  I will probably never go back to the places that I lived or to the places I refused.  I really had no idea how fortunate I was to visit the countries that I did, and I certainly didn’t appreciate the culture as much as I would now.   Still, I believe the culture shaped myself and the other military dependents I know.  With overseas military dependents, there is an understanding of a shared experience that defines our core.  We learned early in our lives that nothing is permanent.  We understand loss, as we were constantly saying goodbye.  While that may seem sad, it is actually liberating.  We learned to change our friends, our environment and ourselves.  As we lost old friends, we made new ones. 

Most military dependents have learned to be extroverts, by necessity.  Because our circle of acquaintances and friends were constantly changing, we did not have the external world to define us.  In my schools, there weren’t the long-lasting stereotypical labels that one might see in an ordinary school: jock, nerd, outcast.  A “nerd” in one school could transform himself into a “jock” in another school and no one would be the wiser.  We could and had to define ourselves and choose who we wanted to be.  While I may have been a “brat” growing up, I’m learning to appreciate the gifts of my experience in helping to define who I am today.

Military Kids on the Move, Again

Child, Youth and School Services at Fort Drum, N.Y., spent months planning special events to show their appreciation to the military children in their community. U.S. Army photo

I was poking around on the website, Military Youth on the Move, checking out tips to help military children deal with circumstances that many of their classmates or friends may never experience. It is an opportunity, even for adults, to understand the military child’s unique experiences. Here are a few things I pulled from the website.

Ever think about what it’s like for military children to move  or PCS (Permanent Change of Station) every few years? Here’s the perspective of an elementary child.

“It’s almost like if you don’t come home the first day at your new school with at least 5 friends you’re going to have to wear a big sign with “Reject” written on it. But it’s not that way at all!!”
Leah, age 9

Imagine being a teenager who has attended 10 different schools. This is from the site’s section of high school students.

“I had a really hard time moving this time. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t moved before, this is like the 10th new school for me. But this time, it was harder to make friends and really hard to leave my old friends. I ended up talking to my counselor about my classes and then I just lost it and told her how I just didn’t think I could do my junior and senior year here. Can you believe they have a support group for military kids at this school because there’s so many of us? We even got training on how to help other kids who move here. Very cool.”
Keisha, age 16

Some of the military children find positives in their mobile lifestyle. This is from the middle school section.

“Skateboarding, snowboarding, surfboarding. In that order. That’s what I did at the last three bases. I’m happy to report that I’m always ‘board.'”
Jeremy, 12

There’s a section just for parents with tips on how to handle another move to how to give yourself a break.

The latest military family information and research will be presented at The 2011 Family Resilience Conference that starts Wednesday (27 April 2011). Many of the will be streamed live here.

“Restrepo” Airs Monday Night on National Geographic

Tonight, 25 April 2011, the National Geographic Channel will broadcast “Restrepo,” a documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The movie and outpost, “Restrepo,” are named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.

Tim Hetherington, one of the documentary film producers, directors and cameramen, was killed recently covering the conflict in Libya.

Billed as One Platoon, One Valley, One Year, you can learn more about the men here.

An Army Mom Connects Military Families and Churches

Please welcome a new contributor to Off the Base. Tracie Ciambotti started her outreach – Military Families Ministry – before First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, called for such community involvement in  their Joining Forces campaign. Tracie has been reaching out and bringing people together for more than a year.

Tracie's son Joshua and his wife Alison, after he returned from his second deployment in Iraq.

By Tracie Ciambotti

My son enlisted in the Army two days after graduating high school in June of 2005—five months later he was in Baghdad in the middle of a war.  He received the best training in the world for his new job as an Army infantryman; I however, did not receive any information or training for my new role as the mother of a soldier.  Families that have a loved one in the Armed Forces sacrifice and serve with their enlisted and they need support. 

I could not find one support group in the community or county where I lived in Pennsylvania at the time.  Most communities in this country have support groups for all kinds of things; alcoholism and drug addictions; cancer and many other diseases; crime victims; and many more. 

So why aren’t there support groups for military families?  I think that most citizens simply do not realize the challenges faced by these families on a daily basis.  People understand that soldiers sacrifice—that is obvious, but they don’t fully comprehend the impact on the entire family. 

One of the Military Families Ministry group meetings.

I co-founded Military Families Ministry to support the entire military family.  Our target is churches.  There are two things in most communities; one is a church and the other is a family that has a loved one or close friend serving in the Armed Forces.  Our goal is to connect them. 

Churches provide the perfect opportunity to support the military families in their communities as they are already established organizations who want to care for those in their midst.  Our mission is to awaken church congregations to the challenges of military life and help them establish support groups to care for the families in their communities. 

Our ministry groups meet monthly, share a meal and conversation, encourage each other through deployments and other difficult times, and work together on service projects to support service members and their families.  

You can visit our website, Military Families Ministry, for details on our service projects and ways that you can get involved.

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