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.

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