Unique Cultural Subgroup: Military Brats and Third Culture Kids

Johanna McCloy wrote several articles as a freelance journalist for Truth Atlas, a magazine “featuring stories about people and ideas making the world a better place”. Truth Atlas provided permission to reprint her articles here. 


Donna Musil. Photo by Ray Ng

Donna Musil. Photo by Ray Ng

DENVER, COLORADO–If you’ve never heard of the term “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs) that’s in keeping with the phenomenon of this cultural subgroup feeling somewhat invisible or unrecognized. Third Culture Kids is a term coined in the 1950s by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem referencing people who have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture. The reasons for this vary: parents might be missionaries, international business professionals, immigrants or members of the military (whose kids are often referred to as “military brats”).

One such brat is independent filmmaker Donna Musil, 54, who has made it her mission to bring this subculture to light and to help its members recognize the common psychological and emotional effects that come from having grown up this way. She launched her mission with her award-winning documentary “BRATS: Our Journey Home.”

One of the hardest questions for brats to answer is “Where are you from?” which Donna emphasizes is a common experience for all Third Culture Kids. “The first culture is the parents’ passport country, the second culture is the country in which the kids are culturally living, but the third culture is where the kids belong, and that is, to each other,“ Donna explains. “We don’t fit into a culture defined by geography. It doesn’t matter what countries we’ve lived in, it’s a shared experience. Belonging is the key. TCKs have a hard time with this, and it’s a very big deal. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, belonging is the third most important human need, after food and safety.”

Brats_Poster_4x6Donna wants TCKs and brats to recognize the positive qualities that come from having grown up with a sense of not belonging anywhere. “Not belonging isn’t all a tragedy,” she says, “it’s good too! TCKs are the quintessential 21st Century citizens. They’re not fully invested in any group, they can listen to all sides and not be entrenched in their thinking and they don’t usually judge things as black and white. My mission is to help fellow TCKs realize that they’re okay, they’re not alone, that they belong not to a country, but to a borderless nation of people, and that we can help each other.”

Donna moved 12 times by the time she was 16-years-old, living in places like Korea and Germany as her family went wherever her father, a JAG Officer and military judge, was stationed. When she was 16, her father died and her family abruptly returned to the United States, where Donna never quite felt like she belonged. She continued her peripatetic lifestyle as an adult, moving 19 more times over the next 20 years. Then, in 1997 she experienced an “aha” moment when she reunited with 15 former friends and classmates from her high school in Korea. “There were 10 kids in my 9th grade glass,” she says, “and a total of 200 kids in K-10th grade. We got together for four days in D.C. and spent most of that time talking. We were an eclectic and racially diverse group, but we were all saying the same thing. It hit me then. We were such a mix of people, but it felt like I’d come home. I felt like I belonged.”

Donna Musil at 13-years-old. Her parents took her ice skating in Seoul, Korea and they were the only Americans there. "Of course, all the kids surrounded us and some touched our blonde hair," says Donna. Photo from Donna Musil.

Donna Musil at 13-years-old. Her parents took her ice skating in Seoul, Korea and they were the only Americans there. “Of course, all the kids surrounded us and some touched our blonde hair,” says Donna. Photo from Donna Musil.

After her Korea reunion, Donna read the book “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,” by Mary Edwards Wertsch and found herself identifying strongly with the characterization of the military brat experience that Mary describes. Inspired, Donna immediately contacted Mary, who agreed to work with her in making a documentary film inspired by the book. In 1999, Donna created Brats Without Borders, Inc. as a nonprofit production company with a mission, “to create films, videos and literary materials for current and former military children and other “third culture kids” from highly mobile families around the world…that acknowledge their existence and contributions, improve the quality of their lives, and foster the self-awareness and sense of belonging necessary to employ the more positive aspects of their unique multi-cultural inheritance.”

For the next seven years, Donna researched material and interviewed 500 military brats, providing them with an extensive questionnaire. Many brats wrote very long replies, underscoring the unique commonalities of experience that Donna wanted to convey in her documentary. Army brat and musician Kris Kristofferson was brought in as narrator, interviewee and song contributor. General Norman Schwarzkoff and Mary Edwards Wertsch also participated.

Donna Musil shooting an interview with West Point Sociology Professor Morten Ender in Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Peg Hennig, Austin, TX

Donna Musil shooting an interview with West Point Sociology Professor Morten Ender in Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Peg Hennig, Austin, TX

In the film, Donna covers a number of important issues related to the life of a military brat, including living on the edge of history-in-the-making, growing up in integrated schools, moving all over the world and not having a sense of rootedness or connection with extended family, living under the authoritarian structure of a military base, experiencing the prolonged absences of the parent who is serving, growing up in a patriarchal society, being exposed to art, history and culture, and in some cases, living with parents who become alcoholics. The first cut of her film was six hours, which she then reduced to 90 minutes. In 2006, “BRATS: Our Journey Home” was finally released, winning several film festival awards.

“I wasn’t prepared for the response of the film at all,” Donna says. “Most of the brats loved it and the TCKs loved it.” In reaction to one military mom saying it made her feel like she wasn’t doing a good job, Donna says, “but it’s not about the parents and it’s not about the military- it’s about the kids. How is she supposed to know? No one knows about this stuff. After 18, military brats don’t talk to anyone about their experiences very much.”

No other documentary better depicts the social and psychological impact on children and adolescents at the intersection of two power social institutions–the military and the family. –Morten G. Ender, Ph.D., Sociology Program Director, United States Military Academy, West Point

Since the documentary’s release, the National Museum of the U.S. Army, being built in Virginia, has hired Donna to create an army brat exhibit there. Donna is also co-curating “Unclassified: The Military Kid Art Show” with artist and Marine Corps brat Lora Beldon. This traveling museum exhibit also unveils powerful and poignant clips from Donna’s new documentary, “Our Own Private Battlefield,” which focuses on the intergenerational effect of war as it relates with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

For more information about the film and Donna’s other projects, go to BRATS: Our Journey Home.

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  1. I was a civilian in the USAF and had to make a list of life time home and school addresses for a security clearance. Since some of the addresses were on decommissioned facilities, the home address no longer existed. As far as schools go, with my parents help, we identified 12 I had attended by the time I had graduated from high school. The form required address (with zip), give me a break. Again several no longer existed. Some quarters had been temporary, until more permanent lodging could be found. Really got me thinking how often we went through the pain of moving. How often we had to live out of suitcases. How often we were separated forever from friends How often we discarded belongings to be within weight limits. How often we would go for years without seeing extended family. How often we would not celebrate birthdays and holidays as a family. And since my father flew in WWII, Korea, French Indo-China, and Vietnam; how often we said good bye realizing it might be the last good bye. How often we realized our father was killing people, not just enemy combatants, but families like ours. Yes, there were positives, but given the negatives, the positives don’t seem all that significant. Going through such experiences has a great influence in defining the person as an adult.

    • Dare to be Fabulous

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Steve. One TCK’s mom was recently counting how many places she’d lived since she was a kid, and it came to 30+ addresses. The positives gained come out of the hardships endured sometimes. That first-hand experience of accepting and coping with impermanence (whether it’s parent or job-created, or natural.) And seeing things with a wider perspective. These alone can become life-saving traits as an adult. That’s something. But it doesn’t make those earlier hardships any less hard.