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Life As A Military Brat: Where is Home?

Every military brat experience is unique and full of adventures, and many get to travel and live in a variety of places....
A family poses together on June 1, 2021 at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida. Dozens of family members, base leadership and friends gathered to greet the returning Airmen of the 482nd Fighter Wing when they returned home from their deployment to Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Allissa Landgraff)

Every military child’s experience is unique and full of adventures, and I loved the experiences that the military lifestyle brought me as a child. Once I started writing, I realized how multi-faceted the military child experience is. As the words flowed onto the page, I had paragraphs spanning from feelings when my dad deployed, how military brat life influenced me to serve, the lasting impact of lifelong military friendships, and the list goes on! One funny memory I had while I was writing brought me to the topic that I wanted to focus on. How do you know where “home” is when you are a military child? 

Early days as a military brat

I grew up as an “Army Brat”, moving all over the country and even overseas. I was born in Fort Rucker, Alabama, then moved on to a short stint in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and then on to Fort Stewart, Georgia, all before the age of five. Like most service members and spouses, my parents met some lifelong friends at each of those places, though they might not have known it yet. When we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1998 we reconnected with several of those families. By the time we had reunited, those families also had children around my age and it was the beginning of lifelong friendships for the parents and the kids. The craziest part is that when one of those families moved to Seoul, South Korea, we got orders the following year to go there too, and even ended up living across the street from each other!

Moving overseas

Overseas tours are especially special for a military child. As someone who has done an OCONUS PCS alone as a service member, I prefer when someone else handles the logistical headache of moving overseas and I was just along for the adventure! With one of my already established besties across the street, a brand new Starbucks within a safe walkable distance I could go to without my parents, I was thriving! I lived in Korea from the ages of nine to eleven, and I remember most of it well. My parents did a great job of involving us in off-base adventures and immersing us in the culture. Our DoD schools also taught “Korean Culture” as a lesson which I loved. 

Being a military brat in Korea

Korean food and culture have had a lifelong impact on our family. Our friends had an undeniable connection while volunteering with an orphanage and left that tour with a daughter! Our other close friend has a Korean wife who is the best cook anyone has ever met. And guess what? We all ended up retiring at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Our holiday gatherings with our “military family” always featured authentic Korean cuisine and kept those memories alive. Military life always has a way of coming full circle like that! My friend who was adopted from Korea ended up studying abroad in South Korea while I was stationed in Okinawa. Her brother and I met up with her in Korea to have a reunion as we had always joked about. It was so fun to see what we remembered, and what changed, and make new memories together. A simple two-year OCONUS tour as a ten-year-old continued to show up in my life in ways I did not expect. Maybe Korea never felt like “home” but the lifelong friends, and the way the culture became intertwined in our family forever, always make pieces of Korea bring a comforting sense of familiarity. 

Finally settling down

We moved back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 2004 and I attended school on base for my sixth-grade year. At that point, my dad knew he would probably retire from this duty station and my parents bought a farm thirty minutes from the base. Going into seventh grade, my parents decided it was time to transfer me to the school district closer to our farm. Of course, as a pre-teen, I was upset to switch after one year because I had just made new friends. However, this was the last time I moved schools and I feel fortunate I was able to attend most of middle school and all of high school without having to change schools again. However, I remember the transition to my last “new school” being the hardest. Part of this is because I think middle school age is when I was the most concerned about fitting in and it is just an age of changes in general. Also, attending a rural school where everyone has known each other since they were babies and half the town is somehow related because the roots run so deep, makes being the new kid attracts a lot of attention. I was used to DoD schools where we were all the “new kid” and no one noticed!

Where is home for a military brat?

On the first day of seventh grade, I will never forget when my English teacher asked me “Where are you from?” I stuttered and then was silent because I did not know how to answer. Should I say Alabama, where I was born? Do I say Korea since that is where we most recently moved from? Do I say North Carolina or Virginia because that is where my parents grew up and it is where my grandparents and cousins live? Or do I say Kansas because we lived here for a year already, even though I am new to this school? I had never lived anywhere longer than a few years at a time, so that did not help me either. I remember my teacher chuckling in my panicked silence while the whole class stared at me and he said, “You can’t tell us where you’re from?” I do not think he meant to embarrass me, but he was probably confused why I did not know the answer and I was confused why he would ask me such a ridiculous question on my first day! 

Looking back on this moment of a pre-teen identity crisis, now a funny memory, the answer is obvious. Kansas is home. Several of the other military families we had remained close friends with also retired in Kansas, and we maintained close bonds with them and celebrated all of our holidays together since few of us had blood relatives in the state. The farm we bought in 2004 is still where my parents call home and where I lived through middle school and high school.  All of our free time was spent raising farm animals and building a fresh produce business on our farm, creating a strong attachment between me and this piece of land.  After high school I attended The University of Kansas, further solidifying my loyalty to this heartland state. 

Home is where the military sends us

Just like the signs at the on-base gift shop say, “home is where the military sends us” or “home is where the heart is”, you can make your own definition. South Korea holds memories that last forever and its culture lives on in our military family forever. Kansas is my “permanent residence” on my military paperwork as an adult (maybe finally having a “permanent residence” made a subconscious impact on me), but the roots I was able to lay on our Kansas farm and the friendships turned family we had there, is what gave me a sense of home. 

I did three tours as an active duty service member, first to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, then to Okinawa, Japan, and back to North Carolina. While Okinawa might not have ever felt quite like “home” to me, the lifelong friendships I made there give me a sense of “home” every time I am reunited with those people. North Carolina is the duty station where I met my husband and spent two years co-located with my active-duty brother. Living across the country but being lucky enough to live in the same place as my brother was a special time. Living in North Carolina, my father’s home state, means I have cousins, aunts, uncles, and my Nana, just a few hours away. We have also found the best local community that we could ask for. Needless to say, North Carolina is home now too. 

So, where is home?

So my personal answer to the question is, Kansas and North Carolina are both “home” to me. Being married to an active-duty marine, I am sure there is the potential for another location to earn a spot on that list! Home is not where you were born or an address you lived at the longest, it is a place that brings comfort and is full of good memories and a strong community. It is a place you planted roots and developed an emotional attachment to. If you are a service member, spouse, or “brat” and someone asks you, “where are you from?”, I think you should just say whatever location your heart feels closest to at that time.

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Reference to any services does not constitute DoD endorsement of those services.

Jesi James