Only 1% of the United States’ population serves in its military (Ferdinando, 2018). Of that 1%, a quarter have at least one parent who served before them (Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies [JAMRS], 2013). Furthermore, according to a study by the National Military Family Association (NMFA, 2022), 44% of the over 2,000 military-connected teens surveyed intended to enlist in the future, and 18% of them intended to do so upon their high school graduation. Given that this population makes up such a significant percentage of our military, and that so many military-connected children intend to serve, it is essential that we understand their experiences, as well as the factors that inspire them to join.
Our military-connected children’s lives and experiences are unique. According to the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC, 2017), military-connected children are 3 times more likely to move than their civilian peers and may do so 6 to 9 times before their high school graduation. In addition, they are likely to experience their parent(s) deploying at least once during childhood (Department of Defense, 2010). Despite all of this, military-connected children are still 2 times more likely to serve in the Armed Forces as their civilian counterparts (MCEC, 2017). So, given these seemingly taxing experiences, why do so many children of Service members go on to join the military?
To gain some insight, we created a brief survey and connected with about 10 military-brats-turned-Service-members to learn more about their experiences and opinions on both their time in the service and their upbringing as military-connected children. Our respondents were active-duty Service members as well as Veterans affiliated with the Army or Marine Corps. Upon reviewing their responses, we found a common theme – their families were their inspiration to join the service.
“My family had a sense of patriotic duty and patriotic sacrifice.”
“I was always inspired by the military and was very proud of my father and his accomplishments. My father took me to flight line a lot and I got to see the fighters that came through, as well as being able to climb around on tankers and command and control airplanes.”
“My dad/curiosity inspired me to join. Most of my closest childhood friends had joined, too, and that really pushed me to join, just because I saw how many unbelievable memories they were able to make.”
“It was a combination of my father and the Corps itself. My father served with the Marines for a time and I got to see him attached to that…in a small way. The family and camaraderie that the Corps displayed while growing up around it was more than enough to draw me close.”
“My family inspired me to join the military. The desire to serve has always run through the family, but I joined the Marine Corps to kind of deviate from the familial norm. That, and that made me the first Marine in my family, which is kind of cool.”
Another common theme for our respondents was their appreciation of their positive experiences as military-connected children. Given their unique upbringing and the frequent relocations that came with it, they had the opportunity to encounter far more different cultures and foods than the average children, and to meet incredible people along their journey.
"I got to live in different places every three years, so it was kind of like starting a new adventure every time we moved. I never got the opportunity to make life-long friends from when I was younger, but, through that, I also learned the qualities that make a real friend.”
"I enjoyed being exposed to many different people and places through frequent moves. Changing schools didn't bother me. I was good at meeting new friends and [moving] let me start over and forget anything embarrassing from my old school.”
“We traveled a lot when I was young. It was great to see so many different places. I have friends who I went to grade school with and then later went to college with.”
“I had access to a lot of things and learned to ski in the Black Hills. We [also] did a lot of things as a family and were our own self-sufficient unit.”
Of course, given the nature of the Service, growing up in a military-connected family has its own unique stressors and our respondents were not immune to them. Our respondents remembered some of their childhood hardships due to life in the service very well.
“It was hard on my mom when my dad deployed without us. I did not realize the impact until much later in life. 13 months in SE Asia was almost more than she could take and it led to his eventual retirement when the Army was going to send him back a second time."
“The most negative aspect for me was [that] once I got used to a location it was time to leave. Adjusting to different areas really sucked for me.”
“As [for] the moving and school changing, I know that as a kid it was difficult. But at some point you just expect the loss/change, depending on your perspective.”
“[Moving 5 times in a short span] was rough, as I had to make new friends and deal with bullying from the established people after each move (including on the sports teams). Moving for my senior year in high school was especially rough, as I basically had to start over in terms of making friends.”
Now that we have a better understanding of both the positive and negative experiences associated with growing up in a military family, we can also appreciate why so many military-connected children choose to join the service themselves. One other reason appears to be that their background in and knowledge of the military’s culture and lifestyle serve as an advantage to their military own careers.
“...I had some knowledge of the culture and environment going in. I understood the rank structure, social environment, and the social issues related to service. I was not taken aback by the need to often move. While I got homesick, it was also an adventure to see new things and places. It also gave me insights into issues that my soldiers were going through (as I had at an earlier stage of life). I also had a better understanding of the services available to soldiers, which allowed me to more effectively help them.”
“I definitely knew what to expect – more so than my peers.”
“I knew what life was on post and understood the Officer-NCO-Soldier relationship. [It] made adjustments easier.”
“I knew before I started I would be separated from my family, and it seemed natural. I saw others who were debilitated by it, and they left the service. I also think my upbringing encouraged me to accept challenges and try my best. That always served me well in the Army.”
Even though military life comes with many stressors, military-connected children today are likely to become tomorrow’s Service members. As more and more military-connected children continue following in their parents’ path, it’s crucial for us to consider their perspectives so we can better understand the military and our Service members.