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For military children, the world is their hometown. How constant moves have provided them with an experience that few others will know.

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by christina n. cleveland photos by cameron robinson

n the early hours of most weekdays, while many of her

peers are sleeping from hours of studying, Alyssa Gray is up participating in physical training with Army ROTC.

Gray’s 5-foot-something frame may seem meek, but be-

hind her perfectly coiffed hair and coordinating clothes is a soldier. Coincidentally, the uniform of a soldier attracted

her to military life.

“I wanted to be in the Army in the eighth grade,” she says. “I

thought the uniforms were so cute, and this was when they were still wearing the uniforms in green.”

She joined JROTC that year, and by 12th grade was awarded

an Army ROTC scholarship to the University of South Carolina. The 21-year-old is now a senior finishing her undergraduate

degree in international studies. After her May graduation, she will commission as a second lieutenant in the Army. She is leaving


South Carolina for training at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., where she will be a signal corps officer working with communications and satellites. She says her parents, especially her mother, love the fact that she knows what she will be doing after college, and she is waiting for her sister and brother to come around. “Most people out of college don’t know what they’re going to do but I have a job; my mom loves that,” she says, smiling. Gray is not only a member of the military, but also a product of it. She is a part of one of its best known subcultures: the “military brat.” Call them brats, world citizens or proficient travelers, the children of the military have had vast, and sometimes fascinating, experiences that many kids don’t have growing up. These experiences can be negative or positive. Either way, they are often challenging. This is because military brats’ experiences highlight one of the biggest strains on military families: maintaining stability. Gray’s father, Carl, joined the Navy in 1968 at age 17, and worked as engine mechanic on a ship. In the 1980s, he retired from the Navy to later join the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where he works today. Since serving in the corps he has been deployed on several occasions, moving the family and Gray across the States and the world. “He was very strict and harsh,” she says about her father. “I couldn’t date until I was 16; I had only been to a few sleepovers. If he didn’t

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know where I was, I couldn’t go. It was always school, work and home for me.” Despite his restrictions, Gray says she enjoyed her childhood, even though she failed to realize at the time the toll the incessant moving had on her. “As a kid, you don’t know why you have to leave so often,” she says. “You’re always thinking: ‘Why are we leaving? We just got here.’” Gray’s family now lives in Woodbridge, Va. — the last stop on the wide array of places she moved to throughout her childhood. She has lived in four states and one foreign country. She was born in Charleston, S.C., but at the age of 2 moved to Amarillo, Texas. At 7, Gray moved to Little Rock, Ark., and in seventh grade she was off to Seoul, South Korea. When her parents made their last move to Virginia in 2008 after she

had graduated from high school, she left again for Columbia, S.C., to begin college. Gray spent six years in Seoul, South Korea on Yongsan base, and graduated from high school at Seoul American High School. The transition to the densely populated foreign city took her aback at first. “It was so huge and crowded,” she says. “People stared because they had never seen a black person before. They always wanted to touch your skin and hair.” But despite the initial culture shock for both her and the native population, Gray says Seoul was one of the best places she has lived. “I really loved it,” she says. “I hope I go back one day.” Gray also loves the military way of life, especially its structure and

Seoul, South Korea

Woodbridge, VA Amarillo, TX

Little Rock, AK Charleston, SC

Well-traveled Alyssa has lived in Asia and various parts of the US, moving five times since the age of 2. Check out the Homefront iPad app for an

Andrew Coleman, left, and his brother, Chase Coleman, celebrate a North Carolina Thanksgiving in 2011 with their new puppy. Photo contributed by Andrew Coleman

focus on respect. She credits it and her college experience for springing her into adulthood. Six hours away from where she is doing morning pushups and situps lives Andrew Coleman — a college senior who experienced frequent moves as a military child, as Gray did. His father is a retired Navy SEAL captain, who served for 26½ years. Coleman now calls Virginia home, as well, and has one sibling — an older brother who is a lieutenant in the Navy. His grandfather also served three years in the Army Air Corps after he was drafted during World War II. Andrew Coleman might follow family footsteps; he’s considering joining the military if he doesn’t go to law school. But first, he’s finishing his studies in St. Augustine, Fla., at Flagler College. The senior political science major remembers his father’s multiple de-

ployments, and the ensuing change of schools and switching friends. “You don’t make any long-term connections; I don’t stay around people for too long,” Coleman says about his teenage relationships. “You know the longest you’re going to be there is two years. You always know you’re going to leave in two years — you don’t really get attached.” His father, George Coleman, describes his son (Hunter to his family) as outgoing, talkative and witty. He believes these traits, along with his athletic abilities, allowed his son to adapt and meet friends. “I coached many of the athletic teams that he played on in our various locations, and we have a close family that I think is very supportive,” George Coleman says. Andrew Coleman, a wrestler and swimmer, moved mostly in his adolescent years. He spent a year in Rhode Island during elementary

school, but mostly moved back and forth from Virginia Beach to Alexandria, Va. He lived in Tampa, Fla., for two years during eighth and ninth grade; and then moved to Alexandria, Va.; and for his final year of high school, he moved back to Virginia Beach. Coleman attended three high schools in four years. He did play sports and attended junior prom, but admits that he missed out on some typical high school traditions. Coleman says by his senior year, when he moved back to Virginia Beach, he simply put his head down to get ready to graduate and prepare for college. However, he acknowledges that being in college has changed his outlook. “You put up roots, make more connections, easier connections that is, and better relationships,” he says. “It’s different; you can’t escape every two years, but I definitely en-

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FLEXIBLE, RESPECTABLE, AND INDEPENDENT -- Alyssa Gray is preparing to commission as a second lieutenant, becoming a full-fledged member of a lifestyle she grew up in. After years of transitioning, families like Gray’s, Coleman’s, and McGathy’s have learned to adapt to and embrace the challenges that military life presents. Photo by Cameron Robinson joyed college. I don’t find anything wrong with living in the same place for a while.” Now 22, he’s grateful for the experience of being a military brat. Coleman says he’s glad he moved around, and that it’s not as hard as some may think. He says the strength of his parents, especially his mother, Jennifer, helped the family manage the incessant moves. Coleman’s father admits that the constant separation unfairly stressed his wife. Over his years of service, he completed eight deployments, each about six months in duration. For each one he had to train in advance, which in some cases could last a year, with half of that time spent out of town. “Over the course of 26 years, I

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was not home for eight whole years while the boys were growing up,” he says. He genuinely believes his wife deserves an abundance of acknowledgment for those times. “I think that all of us have become very independent and flexible as well as being able to plan things out better than most people,” George Coleman says. Flexibility, the Rev. Charles McGathy agrees, is one of many benefits of being a child of the military. McGathy, the pastor at First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C., served 22½ years in the Navy, during which time he raised five children. “You have to be flexible with the punches that life throws your way and be able to make changes

quickly and successfully,” McGathy says. “Independence is key. Everything about the military is about standing up.” McGathy’s children all have had varying experiences. His two oldest children, Michael and Erin, experienced the most change. Erin was born in Japan with dual citizenship, and Michael was born at the Naval Hospital in Twentynine Palms, Calif., near the Mojave Desert. “We call him the desert rat,” McGathy says, laughing. The two were not able to graduate from the high schools of their choice because of their father’s constant deployments to different states and Europe, which was troubling for him. “Personally, I always felt a little bad that I couldn’t provide that for

them,” he says about their lack of geographic stability. “But at the same time they got other benefits from it, and I think both Erin and Michael are very appreciative of those.” He always knew a support system was available to him and other military families — especially since he spent much of his career as a part of that system. McGathy worked as a chaplain for the Marines and Navy, where his job was to provide ministry to families who needed counseling and help with adjustment. “It’s always some type of adjustment; change is the one thing you always encounter in the military,” McGathy says. “It’s hard to imagine when you don’t live in it, that every day it only takes a single email, a single telephone call, a ‘Hey can I see you in my office for a moment,’ for your entire life to change.” After his first wife, Susan, died in 2000, he remarried a year later, and helped raise his current wife’s three children from a previous marriage. Shortly after the marriage, McGathy and his family moved from San Diego, Calif., to Spain for his final tour of duty, with the children still in elementary school. Later, the family settled back in the States and moved to rural North Carolina. McGathy says the three youngest children, Liam, Kevin and Noel, still live at home and have adjusted well to North Carolina. The pastor believes commanding officers have a difficult task making sure that their men and women do their best when they’re

not happy at home. That’s where he stepped in, providing guidance and assistance. He says that sustaining military families is no easy task, but that it can be done. “The families who do adjust to that and do learn those things do fabulously well and really find the military to be a wonderful way of life,” he says. “But for many, many families it is a really difficult way of life.” This rings true for George Coleman, who thinks that although a military parent does often miss life’s little moments, there are many posi-

deployed several times, even serving two tours in Iraq. But Ross’ mother wouldn’t move. She was comfortable and did not want her four children to face the transitions. “It does make it easier growing up in a military town than always moving,” he says. But Ross says even though he lived in one location, it was still hard adjusting at times. His closest friends are a part of military families because it is easier for him to relate to them. To him, military kids, understand things in a different way from civilians.

My children have seen all different types of geography, have met all kinds of different people. They learn about the world from a whole different viewpoint.” — Rev. Charles McGathy tive things about it that those who haven’t lived it wouldn’t understand. Those moments were far too precious for Thomas Ross’ mother to sacrifice. Ross, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a member of Navy ROTC and lived on Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., most of his life. “When people ask who’s a military brat and I raise my hand, they say ‘Well how many places have you been?’ and when I say none they’re shocked,” Ross says. His father, Brian, served in the Marine Corps for 21 years and was

And McGathy would agree. He says military children have a perspective and other opportunities that prove to be advantageous. “It causes one to view the world in an entirely different fashion than if one lived in a rather isolated society where you only kind of go and hang out with people just like you,” he says. “My children have seen all different types of geography, have met all kinds of different people. They learn about the world from a whole different viewpoint.”

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