image of father with daughter

I heard there was a series about military life and I immediately thought, Oh, a series about home? Finally! Though in my head, home became plural. Many military brats don’t have a childhood home in the classic sense. Lots of brats have lived on many bases–too many homes to choose from.

It took me months to finally watch the series We Are Who We Are but once I did I finished the first season in two days. I was riveted because the creators managed to recreate the atmosphere and environment of a military base and life as an Air Force brat. Being that I’m all about reflecting on my life as a foundation to explore my happy, I had to ask myself why the series impacted me the way it did?

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We Are Who We Are, HBO Max Series

Back when I was young we didn’t get off the base much and for many years my Master Sergeant father had the only car. We got off base to go Christmas shopping at Woolworth’s and to drive up north to visit extended family once a year. So when my father decided to retire when I was twelve, while I was bummed we wouldn’t be going on our next tour  I thought the trade-off of being normal would be worth it. At the very least, we would no longer be trapped on a base where visitors and inhabitants alike had to check in with the guards at the gate.

I was excited thinking that being off base would be the beginning of a new, wonderful, carefree identity because civilian kids had normal lives. Civilian kids had neighborhoods and friends they could keep. Civilian kids had family homes that didn’t change. And, maybe, civilian life would mean the end of the abuse happening in our home because, to my way of thinking, the base was an environment that supported it. In the way that children do, my brain had to have something to blame; the base–the only constant in my life–became the culprit.

So we retired the base and almost immediately, cracks in my logic began to show.

I hadn’t accounted for the depression that would descend on my father who, after being a respected leader in the Air Force, couldn’t find a job. He was still a young black man, after all. He became a full-blown alcoholic and started spending nights in the wrong places. The abuse worsened, gate or not, because as we all know, domestic abuse happens everywhere.

Today our society knows that untreated pain just gets worse over time, but that wasn’t the case back then. We were clueless about PTSD and domestic abuse was at the tail end of still being considered a family issue instead of a crime.

A grown-up child of abuse and the foster care system, my father had never really been a part of a civilian neighborhood, himself. The military–where the unspoken rule was to support the soldier above all else–was the only life he knew. On base, even dysfunctional families operated with a certain level of respect (or caution) towards each other because we lived where we worked; all the rank-and-file considerations included. Back then in our petri dish of military pressures combined with family life, speaking on what happened in the home of your neighbors had different implications.

I don’t want to make an umbrella claim that domestic abuse is prevalent in military life based on my skewed version of it. I can only speak about my experience. However it might have been when I was a child, I don’t believe it’s the same today. I hear talk of mental health and PTSD these days. People are also talking about military families now. It wasn’t the case those many years ago.

I can only say from my perspective, among spouses and children who lived on base full-time back then, domestic abuse was much more common than anyone will ever admit. Even though I know better now, as a child of dysfunction talking about it still feels wrong. Writing this post some four decades later makes me feel like I’m violating a family secret.

Off-base civilians knew nothing of these norms. Our neighbors didn’t understand how to socialize with a family that they’d had to call the police on the night before. They didn’t understand how a well-respected member of the military could behave the way my father did or why we kept quiet about it. Soon enough they began to resent us for bringing our damage into the neighborhood. The parents even stopped smiling or speaking to us kids. They hated us all, as a unit, for what we were doing to their dream of home and hearth.

I don’t blame them for not wanting dysfunction next door; the lifestyle of abuse and all it takes to sustain it isn’t one that anyone should get used to, on or off-base. I do blame them for not helping a family feel welcome in a new environment; for ostracizing us instead of meeting us with compassion. And I still feel some kind of way about being seen as a problem instead of a little girl.

As for that little girl and her civilian dream, surprise, surprise … the civvie kids shunned me. 

I looked different. I talked funny (military kids don’t have a discernible place-able accent). Even by military kid standards I had abnormal respect for authority, due to being raised by a father with a hair-trigger temper and a quick back hand. I obeyed like a little mini-soldier in an environment where kids were all about questioning authority. Everything I had previously been praised and prided for were seen as character flaws. I was mocked for being a good girl. I was looked at with suspicion for always–always–being happy.

Of course, I wasn’t happy. I could list a thousand different ways I was scared in my home every day but I only knew one way to cope, and that was by pretending I was fine. In the world I was born and raised in, hiding your fears and protecting/defending your family/unit was a strength and an honorable thing. In this new world, to my civilian peers, my smiles seemed fake and I just looked like a liar.

I no longer knew who I was supposed to be. I realized I wouldn’t be able to ride this out like another tour. The uneasy, unwanted, un-liked way I felt … I had a very real fear that I would feel that way forever. Once I found a small group of nerdy civvie kids who seemed to accept me I hung on for dear life.

But I truly missed kids who knew and understood what it meant to pack up and go where needed; kids too hardened to cry when they had to leave their friends. Kids who knew what was going on in each other’s houses and didn’t embarrass each other or shame each other because of it. Kids who knew what it felt like to be the new kid in class over and over and over again. Kids who had to talk their way out of a beating in a new town–and at home, if possible–or had to try to change their way of being just not to be noticed. Kids who dreamed of fading into the woodwork and envied children with the freedom to backtalk-at-will without being slapped down.

little girl looking lonely
Photo by DepositPhotos

It took about a year for it to sink in that I would never truly fit into civilian life and never again be a military kid.

Once I realized the problems we’d had on base traveled with us off base — that the problem was us — I began to long for the small, insulated environment of the base, again. I missed the pre-WWII movie theaters and the perfunctory recreation center. I missed the library and the commissary and the PX where I could buy candies from all over the world. I missed the NCO club and the bowling alley. I missed the steeple of the little church we never went to. I missed hearing the sound of the drill sergeant and I missed the times me and my neighbor would use her father’s binoculars to spy on the young soldiers doing drills; the distant sound and cadence carrying all the way to housing.

I missed the sound of the planes that lulled me to sleep. I missed trick-or-treating without adults because we were at least safe from strangers on base. I missed occasionally running into a kid I’d met in a past state in a brand new state where our tours of duty overlapped like a Venn diagram. Running into people whose names I remembered at odd points in our lives and acknowledging each other with a head nod because while we didn’t know each other well, we knew each other as fellow military kids and respected each other because of it.

Sometimes I feel a little like an imposter because my military brat career ended so early.

I held on to my friends as best I could afterward, but it’s the nature of a military kid to let go. Let go of people. Let go of places. Move on without tears and without complaint. And yet, the thing I found hardest to let go of was the life, itself.

I aged out of military privileges after my parents divorced, getting back on base periodically through my mother who would occasionally visit the closest base for medical care, and because she preferred to shop duty-free at the commissary over civilian grocery stores. She swore the base groceries were of better quality. She missed the life, too, though she didn’t miss my father or feeling trapped. I never minded taking her on those trips because stepping on base — any base — felt like coming home.

My father wasn’t evil. At times he was kind, funny, and super charismatic. He was a natural leader and he was brilliant; a closet artist, photographer, lover of books, horror films, and BB King. I say these things because to deny his good parts seems a betrayal of those moments, however fleeting, that my father looked at me and I saw love in his eyes. He caused so much pain for the mother I adored there was a time I felt I’d never forgive him. But to paint him as a monster would mean those moments of kindness were a lie, and I choose not to accept that. 

But my wisdom comes from hindsight and distance.

I never stopped being afraid of my father; my estrangement–more from fear and hurt than hatred–started after the divorce and never ended. In 2004 he passed away. As everyone says, his death was a shock because in my eyes my father had always been too strong and overbearing a presence to die. I truly thought I’d go first. I foolishly thought I had time to grow the courage to face him as an adult and not a scared little girl. My mistake was thinking that courage was built over time and not the truth; that courage is built from the doing of a thing.

image of father pouring milk for daughter
Photo by Monstera from Pexels

At his memorial, military personnel came to perform the ceremonial saluting of his casket. It was another shock to the system. The soldiers coming into the small room woke me up in a way that the words from his new family, friends, and distant relatives had not. I grew still from seeing them and watched as they did their duties. Emotion welled in me when they folded up an American flag. Suddenly, I was on base again, a part of a family; a girl with a father who was not yet so far gone he didn’t remember he loved her.

I remembered his uniforms hanging in his closet and the care he took for them. How nice he looked, and knew he did, once he put one on. I saw the change on the nightstand with the box of mints he always kept on him. I saw the Fourth of July when he barbecued out back and all the military fathers in housing called out to each other and laughed; celebrating, setting off fireworks, filled with pride and some kinship I’ll never know.

I saw our family walking to the theatre for the Tops in Blue talent show where servicemen and servicewomen could show they were more than their uniform; they were singers and poets and comedians and actors. I saw my father gathering up all the kids in our unit and driving them to the candy store, buying whatever they wanted. Or laughing as my father pulled out our air hockey table onto the green grass so everyone in our unit could play together. I heard his voice–a voice deeper than one would expect–that I still hear in my dreams sometimes and wish with everything in me I could hear again. I saw the handsome man in the photo that had made my mother fall in love with him.

They folded up the flag and handed it to his wife. In that folded material I saw my childhood and my family folded up and laid aside to be buried along with my father.

I wanted to grab it and carry it home to my mother who had earned that flag for every year she had supported and suffered and sustained a beautiful home and a beautiful family no matter how many times she had to pack up and leave. She’d fought her own, private battle at home. Being a military wife had been her entire life for over two decades. She had served the military, too; at the very least she deserved that acknowledgment.

We weren’t a perfect family, that’s for sure, but for a time we were a family. My parents, for all their flaws, loved us in the only way they knew how. Each had tried to give us a better life than they had. And while there was too much hurt, there was also love underneath. And pride. My parents, individually, were amazing human beings and the base, any base, was our family home. At the end of the day, we all loved military life, even if for different reasons.

I was told my father found God before he died. I hope that is true. I wish I’d been brave enough to have a conversation with him to find out. As I said, I know, too well, how to let go.

Instead, for a time, occasionally I would visit the last base I called home. It’s no longer a military base, though some of the buildings are still there like sad, empty relics of a lost civilization. All the families spread to other places when the base closed. The military housing that had held all us families is now a townhome community and everything seems much, much smaller.

The last time, I pulled into a parking space and tried to remember how it felt looking out of my window at twelve, not understanding that this place I was leaving was my last true family home and I would miss it in ways I couldn’t imagine; that the rest of the world would be nothing like this place and part of me would forever be searching for the kinship I felt in this space. That time I vowed I’d never go back and I haven’t. I’m a brat and I know better than to look back and to dwell on what was.

Well into middle-age now, I no longer feel sadness. The series opened up my memories like the lid on a trunk of keepsakes, but I can close the lid, leave the pain and hold onto the good.

The HBO series made an impact on me not because of the story of wilding-out kids  finding their way— I knew nothing of that  kind of freedom as a kid— but because it put me right back in that base headspace. Watching it put me back in an environment where fatigues are normal daywear and families live in concert with active servicemen and women. Where people aren’t distanced from the news of troop casualties, but are instead right there living and loving the men and women that protect us. On a base, each “troop” has a face and a family and a life beyond what the general public sees. 

For all my naivete about civilian life, I was an introspective child who sometimes recognized moments of importance. Once when I was around ten, I went to the base park. I lay down on my back with my arms folded behind my head to look up at the sky. The moment felt perfect; I vowed to commit that feeling to memory.

When I do guided meditation and the voice says to go to a safe place, I go to that park. And when I imagine I’m lying on the ground, looking up at a jet with a smoke stream cutting through the blue sky, I feel for a brief moment like I am right where I am supposed to be.

I am who I am. And I’m home.

Jets flying
Photo by Sveta K from Pexels

Originally published at on October 23, 2021.