Marines

Documentary helps military brats find their tribe

3 Jul 2007 | Ms. Heather Owens

Kathy Benedict and her sister Kari Laws were “homesteaders” who grew up aboard Camp Lejeune. They lived on the installation for the majority of their Marine father’s career. While their friends came and went, they stayed on.

Benedict, who now works on base, and Laws, who is married to a Navy service member currently serving in Iraq, were in the audience of a very special movie shown at the newly-renovated base theatre aboard Camp Lejeune, June 20.

A documentary titled “Brats: Our Journey Home,” is rapidly becoming a cult classic among former dependents of military members and other interested parties.

“I didn’t think the movie would apply to me, and it did,” said Benedict after the screening. “The examples are the same even if you lived on the base [for a long time like I did] or moved 26 times.”

Laws agreed. She spoke of the uniqueness of the military lifestyle and how those living it could relate.

“There were times you didn’t have to say anything, and your friend just knew [how you felt],” she said, adding, “I came to the movie expecting to find out if, overall, my childhood was normal, because my dad wasn’t the 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. guy. What I found out was that my childhood was normal because I could relate to the other people in the movie.”

A retired Marine and former educator from White Oak High School, Charles Mittelstadt attended the movie with his family. “We have three generations here with my daughter and her daughter. They’re both military brats. Our whole lives have been wrapped around the military in one way or another.”

Speaking before the movie, Mittelstadt said he was curious to see how other military families supported each other as related through the film. “I know how we did it, but I want to see how other people do it.”

The movie indeed explored those issues and more. A seven-year labor of love by independent filmmaker Donna Musil, it is billed as “the first documentary about growing up military.”

“This picture is a proper documentary. It’s about the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful about growing up a brat,” said Timothy Wurtz, a co-producer of the film and an overseas brat whose father worked for the U.S. government, in introducing the documentary.

Musil, herself an Army brat, moved 12 times in 16 years during her childhood. When her father, a judge advocate general officer and military judge, died at age 42 from exposure to Agent Orange, Musil and her family moved to Columbus, Ga., where she finished high school.

For the next 20 years, as annotated in her online biography, Musil graduated college, moved 19 times, and worked a variety of jobs, but always felt “different” from her fellow Americans.

While surfing the Internet in 1997, she discovered a Web site for her Taegu, Korea high school. A few weeks later she attended an impromptu reunion with her high school friends. She described the experience as revelatory. After that, she felt like she “belonged” somewhere and, as she said, began her journey “home.”

“I do know where I’m from now. I’m from military bratdom,” said Musil. “I have people now.”

Kris Kristofferson, himself an Air Force brat and former military member, lends his voice to this work as both a narrator and singer. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a military brat and former Operation Desert Storm commander, also is prominent in the film as is Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of the seminal work on bratdom, “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.”

The documentary uses archival film and pictures, home movie footage and first-person interviews to tell the life of military brats raised mostly during the Cold War.

Though the documentary deals head-on with some thorny issues, including the nomadic existence of brats, the prolonged absences of the military parent and the authoritarian structure of some military families, Musil said that “the military has been very open to this film.”

Yet the picture also takes on many of the positives of growing up in the military. These include what Musil calls the great sense of mission that the military culture provides its dependents, the benefits military children had of attending integrated schools years before the civil rights movement took hold in America and the opportunity for military kids to experience art, history and culture most American youth only read about.

Musil and Wurtz are coming to the end of a nationwide tour of the film. At each location, they report they have had people drive anywhere from two to 11 hours just to see the documentary. In fact, a former classmate of Wurtz from his Ankara, Turkey, high school was in attendance at the Camp Lejeune screening.

After one recent screening, said Musil, a police officer “in full regalia, gun and everything” raised his hand and, with tears in his eyes, said “For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong somewhere. Thank you.”

That seems to be what Musil is doing with her film, creating a tribe, one brat at a time.