Today is Veteran’s Day. Elsewhere in the world, it is called Armistice Day and Remembrance Day I believe. Yesterday was the US Marine Corps’ birthday. I may have trouble remembering some other holidays (What? It’s President’s Day?) and birthdays (sorry Grandma) but these are two dates I will never be able to forget. I grew up as a child of the Marine Corps and some things inevitably become ingrained.
My story is the same as many “military brats.” It is also different. (Both of my parents are retired Marines–usually it is only one of the parents who serves.) Sometimes I find the only people who truly understand are other military kids. I attended five elementary schools in five states and so I have a unique take on the education system in this country. Sometimes, my classmates were nothing like me. They lived in one place their whole life. Their Daddies didn’t have to go away to a dangerous country. Their Mommies weren’t veterans. Didn’t their Daddies wear cammies? When I lived on an Army base in Brooklyn, I soon realized that my classmates “out in town” had no idea what a PX was and that I was different. I thought everyone had to stop what they were doing and salute the flag when Retreat is played in the evenings. (Fun fact: I’ve only recently learned it is called Retreat on Army bases. I mostly lived on and around Marine Corps and Navy bases, where it is referred to as Evening Colors.)
As I grew up, I moved less. In the DC area, there are many military bases that are relatively close. It was nearly unheard of for a military kid to go to the same school system for eight years. In fact, I do recall telling my friends at the close of every school year that I wouldn’t be coming back for the next year. Of course, they stopped believing me after a while when we’d say our tearful little goodbyes and then three months later, I show up on the first day.
Moving was just a part of being a military kid. My sister and I used to have a saying for when we lost our toys and belongings. “We’ll just find it when we move.” More often than not, that was how it worked. Saying goodbye to our friends was difficult, but necessary. I understood that my Daddy was needed in another part of the country, sometimes another part of the world. I understood that my Mommy was a strong woman who would handle everything at home, even if Daddy was away. (I also understood that if I wasn’t a good girl while he was gone, somehow Daddy would know and he’d come back and be disappointed with me.) I always was an excellent pen pal, and sometimes my friends were too, until we lost interest. I never thought about my moving from my friends’ points of view. I never thought about them from my parents’ points of view. I was a child, just holding their hands as they handled all the stress and sacrifice. I had very few responsibilities in all of this. Now, as a newly married Navy spouse, I’m reevaluating everything I did with my parents and I have a new sense of profound appreciation for all they had to put up with.
I could go on for a long time about my little kid experiences with the military. I grew up with the Marine Corps Hymn memorized, didn’t you? My Mommy has two birthdays (hers and the USMCs), doesn’t yours? My girl scout troop went camping at the Philadelphia Zoo and my sleeping bag was my Dad’s green military one. (All the other girls had pink princesses and such.) I went to grades K through 2 in the New York City school system, and as such, I was light years ahead of my classmates when I moved to Jacksonville, NC.
My sense of being a military kid was that sometimes I felt like all the other kids around me. And sometimes I felt like I was so different. The most profound example I have is from September 11th. I was 14 years old in ninth grade in the DC area. The news came and I will never forget my terror. I can’t think about it to this day without tears streaming down my face and waves of tremors wracking my body. I rarely talk about it but I still think about it every day. My Daddy worked in the Pentagon, which was about 5-ish miles from my school. Everyone was scared that day but I was beside myself with fear. I wasn’t actually worried for my own safety. I was consumed with fear for my father and my little sister. (I wanted to protect her because if her school was handling things as mine was, then I knew she’d be scared.) My classmates around me were dealing with the news as best they could–some were quiet, some seemed perfectly normal. I remember some of them were having conversations about things on TV from the night before wondering how they could possibly think of TV in a moment like this.
One of my most vivid memories though is not one I’m proud of at all. I was terribly rude to a girl. I had known this girl since the fifth grade. She was telling everyone how scared she was. In that moment, I let my own fear get the better of me and I yelled at her that she had nothing to be scared of because her Daddy wasn’t the one that worked at the Pentagon. Everyone around me was silent after that and left me alone. I don’t think she ever talked to me again. I never apologised to her either, even though I have felt terribly about it for years now. I’m not sure she even knows how guilty I feel. I never knew her terribly well but I know that we were all scared that day, and afterwards, and we all had the right to be. We all should have been scared, if we were actually thinking about what the news meant. I’m sorry I attacked her.
I felt different that day because I was a military kid. I grew up secure in the knowledge that it was people in far away lands that would try to harm my family. I felt safest on military bases because of the armed guards that checked our IDs in order to gain access to the base. I was special because I knew what it meant to sacrifice. September 11th rocked my whole world. It was now possible for villains to come to my home and try to destroy it. Until that day, I never even imagined it. I never really understood the sacrifice until then.
After that, the fear dissipated gradually to the point where I could hear jets flying overheard without bursting into hysterical sobs. It was replaced with a new sense of pride. I had always felt pride on hearing The Star Spangled Banner or seeing our beautiful flag waving in the wind, but this was a deeper sense. I was able to walk freely in the best country in the world because of the sacrifices my parents made. I was a small part of something so much larger.
My sister and I both agreed as very young kids that we were going to grow up and marry military. (We actually said Marines, because that was all we knew.) Military life was the only life we knew, so it makes sense that we wanted to stick with what we were familiar with. Today, I’m the wife of a US Naval Submarine officer and my sister is dating one too. We’re the daughters of two US Marines and if anyone understands Veteran’s Day, it is us. Thank you to all who serve and have served. And thank you to all those who support them so that they’re able to serve.