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Discovering American Military Brat Culture Through Art

Old Dominion University in Virginia, U.S. hosts UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show
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Writer, filmmaker, lawyer and Army brat Donna Musil is dedicated to bringing brat life to the mainstream.

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Second from the left, standing row: Donna Musil, 14, on the cheerleading squad at Taegu American High School in Korea, circa 1974.

The easiest way to understand a culture is to look at the art of that culture — listen to their music, watch their films — but first, you have to know where to find that art. And if you’re an American military brat, that’s not an easy thing to do. An estimated five percent of the U.S. population grew up in a military family, but there is not one television show dedicated to its subculture. There are no academic studies or museums focusing solely on military children. There is no military brat or TCK section in your local library.

This is why the nonprofit organization Brats Without Borders and the Military Kid Art Project founded the BRAT Art Institute in 2016 — to fill that void. Later this year, BAI will open the first library devoted to collecting the art, literature, poetry, music, film and performance art of military brats and TCKs around the world. Housed in an attached studio in Richmond, Virginia, U.S., the library will also gather educational studies and dissertations pertaining to military brats and TCKs that are languishing in the backrooms of who knows how many universities.

Art as the Key to Culture

“Art is the most profound way in which a group of people can understand their culture and other cultures,” poet and playwright Marcus Gardley said in a 2015 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “Somehow, art gets at the soul of who we are as a people. It transcends race, class and gender. It transcends sexual orientation. It transcends history. It transcends war,” he continues. “It, for me, is the only thing that truly is eternal. Histories get rewritten and changed. They get buried. But art, for some reason, manages to remain untainted.”

This is especially true for military brats who move multiple times before they graduate and are then scattered to the winds like the petals of a dandelion. There is no geographical home to which they can return; in fact, until the internet, brats could hardly talk about their unique experiences with each other. Most didn’t even know where many of their friends finally settled, often feeling something like little islands, free-floating in a sea of confusion: “Who am I? Where am I from? Why do I feel this way? Why can’t I fit in?”

A Sense of Belonging

Fitting in or belonging, as it turns out, is the third most important human need, behind only food and safety. Religion, education and even enlightenment take a back seat to belonging, but it’s hard to understand where you belong when you can’t even find a book or film on the subject.

This is exactly the foundation for BRATS: Our Journey Homethe first documentary about the life and legacies of growing up military, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, an Air Force brat. The film was partially inspired by and features a number of points well-formed in Mary Edwards Wertsch’s book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.

However, like Wertsch’s book, the BRATS film was overlooked by mainstream media and quietly avoided by the military. Despite winning multiple awards and breaking independent DVD sales records, the film has yet to be aired on American television, other than AFN-TV overseas.

PBS said they couldn’t air it because it was “made by a nonprofit about themselves.” There was a high school principal in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who said he couldn’t show the film to his students because it was too honest. But if we can’t be honest with children whose parents are literally dying for their country, who can we be honest with? And while it’s hard to believe there is some nefarious plot to ignore or denigrate military brats, it does appear we remain invisible.

Dedicated to the Cause

For the past ten years, a small group of dedicated individuals at Brats Without Borders has focused on designing programs to raise awareness and address challenges of this invisible subculture. Through educational workshops for military parents and professionals, a partnership was created with Virginia Beach schoolteacher and Marine Corps brat Christy McAnally to form Brats Clubs for children and adults, so they don’t feel alone at non-DoD (non-Department of Defense) schools.

Lora Beldon, a mixed media artist and Marine Corps brat, created the first culturally specific art camps for military children through her company, the Military Kid Art Project. After digging through the American Overseas Schools Historical Society (AOSHS) archives, Lora and I curated “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It is the first contemporary art exhibit exploring the U.S. military brat subculture. The cutting-edge exhibit features original visual art, poetry, film, artifacts and S.T.E.A.M. curriculum and won the prestigious Newman’s Own Award for programs that break the mold and improve the quality of life for military families, past and present.

This exhibit led to the founding of the BRAT Art Institute, where the art camps and workshops are being revamped to include both adults and children. The exhibit also propelled into existence Our Own Private Battlefield, a documentary film exploring the long-term effects of combat PTSD on military children. A five-year work-in-progress, the film documents how one family has used art to help heal their bonds torn apart by the Vietnam War.

Top L: Visitors explore the art of brats at UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show, Top R: “Off Post Housing,” by Don Richards, 1978; Bottom L: “On the Warpath,” by Tim F., 1991, Bottom R: “Dolls,” by Lora Beldon, 2012

Changing the Face of the Country

Military brats matter. Along with their families, they have borne the brunt of every military adventure — and misadventure — the U.S. has entered over the past two centuries. I, myself, attended 10 schools in 12 years on three continents before losing my father to Agent Orange-related cancer when I was 16. He was 42. Others have spent lifetimes juggling the consequences of war.

Growing up military has a lot of benefits, too, of course. Many of us get to see a world we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. The Department of Defense teachers and schools are often excellent, and we are certainly the living embodiment of the positive effects of forced integration on a mass populace after President Truman integrated the military in 1948. It took the adults a little time to get used to it, but military kids were playing together and dating each other 20 years before the Civil Rights Movement.

These experiences have shaped our lives on a profound level and continue to inform our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. By gathering the artwork of this subculture in one place for the first time in history, the BRAT Art Institute hopes to protect the heart, soul and integrity of a world few Americans even know exist.

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3 comments

  1. My dad was in the air force. We lived in Spain when I was a kid, in Texas when I was in junior high, and in the Panama Canal Zone when I was in high school. He died of Vietnam-related cancer when I was 32.
    I didn’t read any books that reflected my experience as a military brat until “The Great Santini.”
    And when I walked into the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center in New Mexico last summer, I burst into tears. It was the first time in my life that I saw my experience reflected and validated. I didn’t even know I was missing that.

    1. Your Experience is exactly why this publication exists. We work hard to create a community of people with experiences like yours, and to further the visibility of other events, organizations and opportunities that do the same. We appreciate your comment!

  2. I find the content of this article to be very interesting, when I think of culture art does come up, but I never thought it to be a defining feature of culture in the way you have. I really connected you’re your point about the transcendental aspects art holds and how important it is to shaping identity and belonging. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised that the BRATS film was quietly disregarded, it seems people ignore the things that incite change. The visuals you used are helpful in grounding your claims with real examples of the art you’re discussing, thank you! I enjoy that you were able to be objective in this article despite discussing the invisibility of your own subculture.

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