Military Families and the Lives of 'Brats'

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Home life for military families is different, especially with a war on. Filmmaker Donna Musil and fifth-grade teacher Randy Brumagin shed some perspective on how "brats" have coped in the past and are handling things now.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

And now to the families our troops in the field have left behind. In a moment, we'll speak with a teacher on base about how the war in Iraq permeates his classroom. But first, a new documentary about the itinerant lives of military brats.

(Soundbite of film, "Brats: Our Journey Home")

Unidentified Man #1: Where are you from?

Unidentified Man #2: From? I don't know. I was born in San Francisco and I kind of consider that my home but I never lived there.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm from everywhere.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh boy. I'm not.

General NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF (U.S. Army, Retired): I was - I tell everybody I was born in New Jersey, but I was raised in the Army.

ELLIOTT: That last speaker was General Norman Schwarzkopf. Like Schwarzkopf, filmmaker Donna Musil grew up a military brat. Her new film "Brats: Our Journey Home" is touring the country. I asked her about the everyday sacrifices that military families make.

Ms. DONNA MUSIL (Filmmaker): Well, I think, initially there's a lot of father absence. By the time I was eight years old, I had moved six times and my father had been gone twice to war zones for two years out of my life. So I really don't even remember much about the first eight years of my life.

The other thing is, we really live different lives than civilians do. Everything that we do reflect - can reflect back on our parents. So there's a lot of pressure on children. You're really in a fishbowl and no one really quite understands that.

ELLIOTT: Why is it that there is so much attention paid to a soldier's family?

Ms. MUSIL: Well, you're talking about issues of life and death, of war, and the military wants to make sure that the soldiers are at the top of, you know, they're at the peak and they can actually go out there and do what they need to do. And the rationale for it is that if the soldier is so concerned about what's going on with his family, that he's not going to be a good soldier. I mean, that's very important.

ELLIOTT: You quote some brats talking about how they have this hard time to reconcile their feelings when it comes to their parents' military service. Let's listen to Daniel Rockholt.

(Soundbite of film, "Brats: Our Journey Home")

Mr. DANIEL ROCKHOLT (Military Brat): So many times like the social part of my dad I'm very angry with. But then there's Master Sergeant Rockholt, United States Air Force, who to me is a hero, you know. He served in Vietnam - highly decorated. To me, I respect that person so much.

ELLIOTT: How do brats reconcile those feelings? On the one hand, there's this sense of resentment that they have not been put first, yet they're also very proud of their parents' service.

Ms. MUSIL: It is a paradox. And I like to say after I made this film I finally became comfortable with paradox, which I wasn't very comfortable with growing up as a brat. We like to think of it as that's our contribution. I do think that brats and their families serve too in their own way. I loved living overseas, I loved some of the things about military. And I was also very proud of my father's service. At the same time, I know that my needs were sacrificed now and then for him to do the job that he did.

ELLIOTT: Now, when did you leave the military base environment?

Ms. MUSIL: My father died when I was 16 years old. He was 42. And it was right before my senior year of high school. So within two weeks of my father's death, we were off base and we moved to Georgia from Fort Knox, Kentucky. And I spent my senior year with a group of kids that had really gone to school with each other since they were in kindergarten.

ELLIOTT: What was it like trying to adapt to life off of a base after having lived on base for so long? Were there adjustment issues leaving that subculture?

Ms. MUSIL: Well, the first thing that really, I think, caught my attention when I had to go to school in Georgia was the racial environment. The kids were very segregated in my senior year of high school, and for me, I was used to going to school with people of all different kinds of races and religions, and it just really wasn't an issue. We were really considered Americans first. It's not that we didn't feel strongly about being those other cultures, but our primary culture was really being a military brat.

ELLIOTT: For children, the shared culture of base life becomes especially important when their parents are sent to war. Many of the military brats profiled in Donna Musil's film grew up during the Vietnam era. For an idea of how the children of today's military are faring, we turn to Randy Brumagin. Mr. Brumagin teaches fifth grade at the Oveta Culp Hobby Elementary School at Fort Hood in Texas. Fort Hood supports two armored divisions - the 1st Cavalry and the 4th Infantry.

With 1st Cavalry now in Iraq, and the 4th Infantry Division recently returned, many of your students must have experienced the deployment of a parent by now.

Mr. RANDY BRUMAGIN (Teacher): Yes, they have. About 40 percent of my class has experienced the deployment as a result of the 1st Cavalry going to Iraq.

ELLIOTT: How do they react when a parent leaves to serve in this war?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: In a multitude of different ways. Some of them react very calmly and go inward to understand it on their own. Others act out. And yet others go along normally.

ELLIOTT: What do the students tell you about their role in the family and how it changes when a parent is deployed?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Most of them that - most of class that has told me or has given me feedback about that is that they miss their daddy or their mommy. They miss the things that they did together, and they miss the fact that they're there in a household. They feel, for example, if it's a dad, they feel safer that dad is back; if it's a mom, they feel more loved when their mom is there. And those behaviors that they exhibit when they go away oftentimes can give you a heads up that, hey, maybe we need to bring the parent in and talk to the child.

ELLIOTT: What are some of the examples of the ways they might act out?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Well, if a child is normally very busy and very active and very energetic about their assignments, and suddenly they're passive and assignments don't get turned in and other ways that the children can act out. If they're normally very well behaved and well-mannered, they may act out in a way that is very disruptive, trying to get that attention that they may be lacking at home.

For example, a few of my children are the oldest children in the family and some of the responsibilities of parenting have fallen on their shoulders. For example, giving the younger children baths or having to baby-sit them, or having to help prepare meals or clean up the house - those kinds of things.

ELLIOTT: They take on some of the roles of the absent parent, possibly.

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Yes, that's correct.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Brumagin, have you noticed that the reaction of children to having a parent deployed has changed at all as time has gone by and as the threats in Iraq have changed, particularly over the past year and a half or so?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Well, the news is a constant source of concern for the children. And especially if they hear the daily account of who's been killed and what IEDs have exploded and killed troops. Certainly that is a concern of the kids on a daily basis. But what has helped the children I think more than anything is the electronic era that we're in and the fact that they can talk to their parents, even though they're on the other side of the world.

They can talk to them via the computer. They have video cameras hooked up, and the Army has done a great job in providing video conferencing rooms so that parents will be able to communicate with their family members who are deployed. So that has eased the burden somewhat.

ELLIOTT: Is it ever hard to keep on track with your reading and writing and arithmetic when the children are distracted so much by these much bigger issues?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Sometimes you just need to fold up the books and gather the kids together and just talk. And the sense of when that's appropriate is completely up to the instructor and completely at the discretion of the instructor, and it's supported by the school as well.

Sometimes when things get really tense or the kids keep asking questions, you just need to decide, okay, is it going to be more fruitful for me to continue with the lesson and continue with this project that we're working on, or shall we just take a timeout and talk and resolve these issues and talk to them as kids?

ELLIOTT: What is the number one concern?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: They're not coming back - their parent not coming back.

ELLIOTT: How do you deal with that when they're seeing on the news what is happening every day? What do you tell them?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Well, I ask them where their parents are. And if they tell me in the area that I can - that we can identify on the map, then we'll go and we'll look at that area and say, yes, it is possibly the area that this occurred in. However, you have to understand that the training they went through is very rigorous and prepared them for this. And I tell them, back when I was deployed during Desert Storm, I had to rely on the training that I got before I went overseas, and I try to tell that their parents are very competent people in their jobs, that they just have to rely on their training as being the force that will carry them through this and that they'll come safely.

ELLIOTT: Have you had students in your class who've had parents that did not return?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: I have not, but we have had in this school - two, I think, that have not come back. In the younger grades.

ELLIOTT: What kind of an impact does that have in a classroom?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: It has a tremendous impact because the sense of loss that is felt by the student is shared by the students in the class because they all come from a very similar background and a very similar environment.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Brumagin, have your students ever asked you any question about the war that you just felt you have not been able to answer?

Mr. BRUMAGIN: The one that I haven't been able to answer to completely answer is why. And we talk around that and we get to a point, and I just say that's all I can say. I don't have any other answers as to why we're there. So - and that kind of puzzles them and it puzzles me sometimes too.

ELLIOTT: Randy Brumagin teaches fifth grade at Oveta Culp Hobby Elementary School in Fort Hood, Texas. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BRUMAGIN: Thank you.

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