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People Are the Only Home the Army Issues

My name is Ashlee Cowles, and I am an Army brat and author. My father was in the military for the first 18 years of my life, and this experience has shaped who I am more than any other. I spent most of my high school years in Wurzburg, Germany, which gave me an international perspective and love for Europe as a second home. As an adult, I went back to Germany to work at the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch, and I’ve also lived in Spain, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, all thanks to the military brat travel bug! My closest friends to this day are other brats from my time in Germany, and even though we now live on opposite sides of the U.S., we stay in touch and “pick up where we left off” whenever we get to see each other.

As a high school teacher at an online school that works with military brats, and as an author of Young Adult literature, one of the things I am most passionate about is highlighting the strengths of a military kids and other TCKs, as well as the privileges that come with this wonderful upbringing. Yes, it can be a hard life at times, but I’m so grateful for the resilience, grit, and other character strengths this lifestyle instilled in me from any early age. Instead of people feeling bad for military kids because we have to move so much, I want the civilian world to recognize the unique characteristics and gifts people from our diverse military community possess, as I strongly believe they are characteristics our increasingly fractured and amoral world is in great need of today.

This is one of the main reasons I wrote BENEATH WANDERING STARS (Merit Press, August 2016), a novel about a military brat named Gabi who is called to take part in a grand adventure while she’s living overseas in Germany. Through this work of fiction, I wanted to tell the real story of life as a military brat, with all its ups and downs. There hasn’t really been a mainstream novel about military brats since Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, so I wanted to focus on the more recent experiences of post-9/11 brats. My hope is that this story will not only resonate with current military teens, but also expose the broader culture to the experiences and sacrifices of military families.

One of my favorite lines from the book is “People are the only home the Army issues…but they’re the only home that matters”–as I’ve found this to be very true in my own life. I’m sure I will always be a wanderer who never feels “at home” in one particular place, but military life has given me a home in all the wonderful people I’ve been fortunate to know!

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Some Memories Never Fade

The picture below is a moment in time capturing what has got to be one of the more crushing moments from my youth. It’s the day my family left Greece on our way to my father’s new assignment in Ramstein, Germany.

If you look behind us, you can see that we’re packed and ready to go, with a large bundle strapped to the top of the car. The smiles on our faces, (in response to the request of our randomly recruited photographer), betray the true nature of the turmoil inside me. Moments later, we would pull away from the curb and my life would change forever. My home, school, friends and a place that I had grown such a close connection to… ripped away once again. Of course it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last.

As we drove away to catch the ferry to Italy, with the city of Athens fading into the distance behind us, I could no longer contain my emotions. My oldest sister would try to comfort me in the back seat of our car, but I was painfully aware, even at that young age, that a significant chapter of my life was ending. I remember it like it was yesterday. I believe that military brats and 3C kids have a more heightened awareness, or clear delineation of those moments in life than the general public, for no other reason than that they happen so often.

I loved Greece. The sights, sounds, culture, ancient history, food, weather, people… special childhood friends. To a kid it was like living in paradise, and everything about it lives in my memory. All military brats and 3C kids have those special places they’ve lived in that leave an indelible imprint on them over the years. This was mine.

Of course nothing lasts forever, and I would move on and adapt to yet another new country and environment. As there had been before, there would be other special places, times and people and this scenario would continue to play out. Looking back, I never really think of my life as a unified whole, but as a series of unrelated, disparate pieces. Different houses, different schools, new friends, that’s just the way it was… over and over again. The faces and locations might change, the emotional impact on those going through it does not.

I would return to Greece years later in my mid-20s, living and working on the island of Ios and in downtown Athens… trying in part to recapture what I had lost all those years ago. And although I was able to create a new set of memories, new friends and special moments from another chapter in my life, it wasn’t the same. How could it be? What was gone was gone… and so it is.

Over the years I’ve found that, unlike my civilian friends here in the states, I don’t talk about my past in terms of age or what year it was, I always seem to talk about it in reference to where I was living at the time. That’s simply the way I categorize and remember things. And this has had the unfortunate tendency to get me in trouble, leaving some with the impression that I’m some kind of blowhard or braggart. (“He’s talking about living in Europe again… give it a rest already!”) In truth, I’m just reciting tales of my reality just like everyone else, my stories just took place overseas. Unfortunately, like some other brats, this has led to me becoming more guarded as I’ve gotten older, and speaking about my past with very selective audiences or in more generic terms, so that people don’t misinterpret it as bluster.

As time has passed I’ve also searched on occasion for some of those friends I’ve lost over the years, and once in a while I’ve been successful in finding them, (the recent onset of social media has certainly helped). But the reality of reuniting never quite equals the Hollywood fantasy that tends to take hold in your mind. Time passes… people change, move on and handle the realities and complexities of their lives in different ways. Some try to maintain those distant connections through the years, and others find it easier to purge and shut out the past in order to move on, (but I’ll save my stories of the intricacies of brat friendship for another day).

For many of us it’s been difficult coming to terms with all of the changes we’ve been through, but when I think of it now it really doesn’t matter… regardless of what’s taken place in the space between now and then, in my mind I’ll always look back with appreciation and a little smile when remembering myself as that little blonde kid playing on the streets of that Mediterranean paradise.

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Army Brat Wanderlust

My dad served 21 years in the Army beginning at the age of 17. I was born in Germany in 1955. We later lived in Tacoma, WA where my brother was born in 1958 while dad was stationed at Ft. Lewis. In 1961, mom & dad bought a house in El Paso, TX, but dad was never stationed at Ft. Bliss… he was stationed at Ft. Hood in Killeen, TX. He was then stationed at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio where we lived for a while before he was sent to Germany.

We moved to Germany when I was about 7 years old and lived there until I was almost 10 while dad was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Force Base. We lived off-base in a small town called Speicher and we went to school on the base. We traveled a lot, as my parents had friends all over Germany and outside of Germany. It seemed like we were always going someplace to visit friends… Paris, Luxembourg, Holland and all over Germany.

I remember one of the first Christmases we spent in Germany was in a small apartment where my brother and I slept in our parent’s room, (mom said we lived in Bitburg at the time). Mom heated the kitchen by turning on the gas burners. I know it was such a small apartment and I was worried that Santa wouldn’t find my brother and I… but Dad assured us that he would. Christmas morning… there on the kitchen table (there was no room for a Christmas tree) were the presents Santa had left us. He brought me a Barbie doll and a Ken doll, (my very first). And… the milk and cookies for Santa had been eaten, (and the carrots for his reindeer). Santa left us a note saying,”Thank you Dolly & Sammy for the milk & cookies. My reindeer will enjoy the carrots. I will always know where you are at Christmas. Love, Santa.” My brother and I treasured that note. Later on our dad told us he had written it to assure us that “Santa” would always know where we were.

I have the fondest memories of my time in Germany and of all of our military friends. My parents still kept in touch with them years after Dad retired. So many more stories. For a military brat, one either becomes a homebody or loves to travel. I love to travel still. And I’m proud of being a brat.

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Michelle Clark

In my 48 years on the planet, I have only spent the past 8 away from Army life. I was born in October of 1967 and my father was activated for the Vietnam war in 1968. I used to joke that I have lived everywhere twice, which is true.

I was born in Hays, Kansas and when Dad was activated we moved to Ft. Hood Tx. From Ft. Hood we moved to the DC area, where my brother was born. My father had to complete his degree in order to remain an officer in the Army, so we moved to Tucson, Az. Then off to Pennsylvania, then Vilseck, Germany. While in Germany I learned so much about life, and how different it could be. I lived in a military community, but was out on the economy. I learned that being an officer’s kid wasn’t cool to the enlisted kids, had to learn how to fist fight boys and girls, in order to just make it home from the bus stop. I learned to speak German and made many German friends, which would help me in later years.

My Dad was then stationed at the Pentagon and I relearned American society at the age of 11. I came back wearing Toughskins and whatever could be ordered from the Sears catalog, which was not popular in the US. Living in the DC area has been and always will be the core of who I am. I learned that being true to who you are and intelligence was a priority in my life. I also envied people who grew up in the same place their whole lives. I always had the 3 year plan to change my friends and surroundings. I did not learn the skills for long term relationships until a much later age, and sometimes still revert to the feeling that everything is temporary.

For college I went back to Hays, Ks, moved to Tucson for college as well, moved back in with my parents at Ft. Knox, Ky and then married a man in the Army. We then moved back to Vilseck, Germany, Ft. Hood, Tx and then back to Ft. Knox. Everywhere twice.

I think the positives from being an army brat were the adaptive abilities that I learned; making friends easily, making a home wherever I land, I have seen the world and realize how fortunate we are as Americans and understaing that nothing is permanent.  The negatives are; there is no location that I call home, everything is temporary (so I always expect some end), I can see the bigger picture and have a hard time with people who are extremely narrow minded, I do not feel connected to any one community.

Danny McKinney

My name is Danny McKinney and I have Down Syndrome, which is uniquely more than being mentally retarded. I was born in San Angelo, Texas and moved to Ramstein AFB, Germany where my family and I were stationed when I was a kid in the 1980’s, where my Dad was serving as a master sergeant. Then we moved away from Germany to the U.S. to live in the sunshine state of Florida since my 5th grade year. So I grew up and was raised in Niceville, FL, about 10 miles away from Eglin AFB. I just graduated from Niceville High School around the year 1997. I was so blessed by every effort my Dad made in the Air Force. He’s been retired since I was 13 years old, around the year 1993.

Danny McKinney participating at the Special Olympics.

Participating at the Special Olympics.

 

Danny McKinney Christmas photo.

Opening presents at Christmas.

Loretta Brown

Wouldn’t know where to start so… will make a long story short “if” possible:

Our 24 year active duty U.S. Army Dad from Anderson, Indiana was a WWII, Korean & Vietnam hero to my family. He met our mom TDY in Athens. Then stationed at bases as follows: My sister and I born in Izmir, brother born in Madrid, Chicago, Ft. Meade, Maryland, Istanbul, Yuma Proving Grounds, Athens (Dad was in Vietnam), Germany, Oakland Army Base, SF Presidio. After he retired he worked another 24+ years civil service for the military, we moved back to Athens for a few years. Oakland Army Base & Alameda Naval Air Station.

Not to gross anyone out but at Oakland Army Base we could smell foulness from the huge warehouses, our Dad waited until we moved off base to tell us those were soldiers from Vietnam, then they were sent to their homes, not enough refrigeration for them all. Sad facts.

Our family bounced around born & raised on bases across the States and Europe. I dated and married Air Force, was in Germany then Edwards AFB in California. My sister also married AF and now lives in Florida.

Although no longer living the military life. It doesn’t just go away, I have so many memories I hold dear to my heart, met friends around the world and kept them.

When stationed overseas, the joy of entering the bases was a fantastic feeling got our hearts pumping to see the water tower, guards at gate, American flag & green grass. I called it mini-America. Stars & Stripes were our hangout for comic books. Although we were never wealthy, we were rich with experience of different languages, cultures and appreciation for people from all over.

Lost our Dad Ken and baby brother Kenny 2 years ago. Although civilians, our Mom, sister and I still feel like we served with our Dad. We come from a family who are very proud US Army Brats and Americans!

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Patrick Odell Kornegay

I was born in Weisbaden, Germany on July 7, 1949. We left Germany when I was three months old. We were flown back, because I had a bronchial infection. My parents were told that I would not live if we went by ship. My early years we moved many times. By the time I was seven we had been stationed in, California, Texas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Alaska. I learned how to make friends and how to adjust to moving.This part of my life taught me how to meet people start relationships and make friends all at the same time.

I remember we traveled from Pennsylvania to Texas in our 1954 Desoto. On this trip I brought a baby chicken that traveled in the car with us. What a trip that was. I remember mother making sandwiches and wrapping them in foil and putting them under the hood of the Desoto to keep them warm. Dad was the kind of man that didn’t believe in stopping except for gas. Then you did your business, unless you were a boy. Then you got the coke bottle and filled it up and threw it out the window. As a kid I slept in the back window, with windows down because there was no air conditioning at that time.

I remember watching the Sputnick in the sky while we were stationed in Fairbanks. Breaking my arm and no one could fix it. So we had to drive to Ladd Army Base and let Dr. Right fix me up. He did a great job considering it was broken at the elbow. While we were stationed in Alaska, It became a state… a lot of celebrating going on then. We then ended up in White Sands, New Mexico. After that we ended up back in San Angelo, Texas. There Dad retired.

But life as I knew it was just beginning. Dad took a job with a company contracted by the gov’t. We ended up in Ankara, Turkey. That was in my teenage years. It was the best years of my life. I met so many brats and made so many friends that I still have today. It also allowed me to live in another country and learn their customs and language. I spoke the language fluently and my father asked me to translate what he wanted his Turkish workers to do. I formed so many relationships with my Turkish friends, and had so many wonderful times. I used to travel all over Ankara by myself at the age of 15. I never had any problems and was treated with respect. I believe this was due to my Turkish. There are so many stories to tell, experiences, and friendships that I created I don’t know if there is enough room or if you would want to hear. I will tell you this, the Turkish people as a whole were some of the best people that I ever met. I met them on their ground, learned their language, respected their customs. I never wanted to leave to come back to the States.

By the time I had graduated from George C. Marshall Regional High School in Ankara, I had lived most of my life going from post to post. Ankara, Turkey was where I had lived the longest, 5 years! Add the 5 years in Ankara and the 2 years in Alaska before it became a state. That’s seven years of my 18 of overseas. As I said my formidable years were in Turkey. I made so many friends in high school and to this day we have a connection that no one can take away, that no one understands, except brats…….I will always be a brat. The one thing our family learned was on his deathbed, Dad confessed he had been working for the CIA. We were all stunned… he never let on. My sister found a little black book with crypto in it. It was such an important part of the world at that time with the Cold War and such. But I was so naive and unassuming. I have so much more and so many more stories. But this is have enjoyed. Thanks so much.

John Thames

Man, Where do I begin?

I think I am the typical military brat. My father was in Vietnam when I was born and my mother had moved to Mississippi to be close to my father’s parents while pregnant with me and having my older sister.

After I was born we bounced back and forth from Virginia to Ft. Sheridan, Illinois then back to Mississippi where I stayed for kindergarten. From there it was Ft. Meade, Maryland, then to Ft. Bliss, Texas. After Texas things got interesting. We moved to Cairo, Egypt and were there from ’80 to early ’83, where I had the unfortunate experience of sitting 10 rows behind Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated.

I was 12 and had asked my mom if I could go with a buddy of mine whose dad was an Army helicopter instructor pilot. My mom said ask your dad when he calls, (he was on TDY in Germany). He called, I asked, and he said, “no absolutely not.” I told my mom he said, “yes,” and I went. The rest is literally history. Myself and Jaime saw everything right down to the fact that the only people shooting back were Prince Charles’ bodyguards. We obviously made it out of there only to be interrogated by the State Dept. once we finally made it back to the embassy.  They kept us at the embassy for a couple of weeks and my father wasn’t allowed back in the country for a little bit, but the smoke blew over and we left after school got out in ’83.

From there Germany, I lived and graduated high school in Stuttgart from ’83 to ’88. I traveled extensively throughout Europe skiing and Eurorailing…  I would never give up who, how, or where I grew up. The kids I grew up with I consider family. As a matter of fact, we just had a Patch High School reunion in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Representatives from ’83 through ’93 were there and we got together like we never left.

Patricia Self

We were really lucky as a family, because we went to Japan in 1953 and Germany in 1960. My dad was sent to Korea in 1952 and we moved to Riverside, CA to be close to March AFB. When hostilities ended, he was assigned to FEAF in Tokyo and we boarded the E.D. Patrick to cross the Pacific and join him. My mom, sister, brother, and I went to Fort Mason while we waited for the process to begin. We’d all had our shots (so many) and immunizations. My mom came down with the ‘flu and there I was, age 9, with siblings 3 and 1. Off we went to find a meal, three times a day. Finally, it was time to board the ship. My mom was a little better, but that soon changed as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the ocean. Seasick? Oh, yes, all of us! My mom had been an Army RN in WWII and sailed both Atlantic and Pacific, but I think having had the flu weakened her system. Still, the day the ship docked in Yokohama was one of great happiness for all of us.

Off-base housing was “private rental,” and we lived in a large home owned by a Tokyo banker and his family. One wing was ours, with a private garden. Tatami mats in every room, a kitchen that I loved but was a nightmare for my mom and Sumiko, our maid. Water was obtained from huge bottles of purified origin. School (at Washington Heights) was reached via bus, which arrived each day at the bottom of a long hill beside our house. One day while waiting at the bus stop, I heard a scream that echoed in the air around us. When I returned from school that day, I discovered that Sumiko had caught her hand in the wringer of our quartermaster washing machine.

After Japan, it was Northern Virginia while my dad was at the Pentagon. And then, off to Wiesbaden where he was at USAFE. It was my junior year in high school, 1960, and HH Arnold High School (now Wiesbaden High School) was located in the Hainerberg housing area. The BX was also there, as well as the Taunus theater (where our graduation was held). We were there four years, and I went to the U of MD at Munich, where I lived in a dorm. Back to Wiesbaden, where I married after a year or so.

My then-husband couldn’t wait to be ex-Air Force, although I’d envisioned life as an Air Force wife, traveling forever. That didn’t happen, but all my ex-husbands were prior service, and I guess that counts for something! Instead, I travel by auto, whenever I can. My last airplane ride was to and from Hawai’i, and all the fun has gone out of traveling in the air. Awful seats, nothing in the way of “service,” and has anybody ever had to change flights and found the necessary boarding gates to be close together? My personal worst is DFW, where it is possible to transit and still be in time for boarding the next flight, but the last time I had to do it I was so happy that I was healthy and nimble!

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