military kids

Why We Baby Boomer Military Kids Developed Differently Than Civilian Kids

When I get together with other baby boom military kids, we frequently talk about how we turned out “different” from civilian kids.

I was one of the first baby-boomers, born to a father in the Army. When I get together with other baby boom military kids, we frequently talk about how we turned out “different” from civilian kids.

One reason is that our families moved so much. It became normal for our family to move every two to three years, sometimes more often. It was normal to have to leave friends or to have them leave us. It never occurred to us that many other kids lived a completely different life. Friends were nice to have, but they were temporary. As were schools. We always had to start at new schools, often in the middle of a school year. (My first wife grew up, all the way through college, in one house. I was amazed and envious.)

But there’s something else, something that military kids born later didn’t experience. Our dads had been through four years of long, bloody, slogging-it-out violent warfare. Even if they weren’t on the front lines, and most weren’t, they worked to support the fighting men. In short, they lived an existence centered around organized violence. They reacted to that by turning inward. It’s common to talk of the “greatest generation,” but our dads also became the “silent generation.” To the universal question we kids asked, “Dad did you kill anyone during the war,” they either said “no,” which may or may not have been true or changed the topic. They didn’t talk about the violence they had endured, witnessed, or perhaps inflicted. That closed them off from us and our mothers, which closed us kids off from others, without our realizing it.

I always had kids I was friendly with but I never had that many close friends, something that plagued my adulthood as well. I’m sure a lot of that was my introverted personality but some part was due to the military life of moving frequently and the “secret life” our dads had lived during the war. I never really expected that I’d stay somewhere very long, or, if I had a friend, that they’d stay on the same base for very long. Later, we’d move much less but by then subconscious patterns may have set in: life moves on, people change, and that’s just the way it is. And that is the way life is, military or civilian. After high school, after college, after graduate or professional school, after leaving a job, suddenly all the people we’d known and been friends with were gone. After the “we’ll stay in touch” goodbyes, in fact, people don’t stay in touch. That may have changed a bit since the advent of social media but probably not by much.

Our experiences led to a certain “closing down” as well as it’s opposite, a certain unrequited longing for the time when we did have close, intense, relationships, even if time limited. The closing down sense really came home to me when I worked in a very intense law firm, where new lawyers were expected to “produce” immediately, generating high billable hours and preferably new clients as well. After a year or so, if lawyers didn’t seem “on track” (a firm buzzword) to meet the firm’s expectations, they were quietly but ruthlessly “counseled out” of the firm. As a result, I noticed that, when I met a new lawyer I liked, I was reluctant to think of a deep friendship because I thought the odds were that person wouldn’t be around in a year (or I might not be around).

The almost opposite effect is seen when people who were in the military or who were good athletes continually reminisce about what they see as those wonderful, intense years of what they recall as close bonding, although at the time they were probably miserable. Again turning to my legal experience, I remember the crushing 16-hour days of emergency cases but I forget the hours and remember the experiences as sort of a high. But always the athletic season comes to an end, the military service is over, or legal case ends. The team breaks up and everyone goes on to other experiences and other teams. Then years later, they will seek to replicate that which cannot be replicated or will view the past with regret and despair that they didn’t have more of those experiences. We all have losses of this kind, no matter where or how we grew up. But for a military kid, they come at early developmental stages, maybe stunting the ability we’ll need as adults to weather similar losses and changes.

About the Author:
John Wagner, one of the first Baby Boomers, has plenty of degrees and honors. He graduated from Colorado Western University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin Law School. His favorite award is the “That’s Not The Right Question” Award created for him by his class at the University of Chicago. He loves all kinds of music, from the Grateful Dead to Richard Wagner (no relation). He has owned four Studebakers. A military kid, he traveled widely when young and still does. He’s shared his experiences in his memoir, Baby Boomer Army Brat. To learn more about him, visit www.johnpwagner.com