By Alexa Gohl
Brad Nehring is a tough military brat whose norm is packing up his life every few years, seeing a parent off to different missions and celebrating the returns.
As his father closes in on 30 years in the Navy, military life is all the 19-year-old has ever known.
Nehring was 6 when his family moved from Michigan to Virginia in 2003. The move started a new chapter, which meant a new school, new house and new friends. Despite being painfully shy, he found a lifelong friend when Shelby Miller introduced herself.
The moving company’s large truck was parked in front of the family’s new house when Miller walked the short distance from her house to ask, “Where did you move here from?”
He told her he’d just moved from Michigan. She asked if he wanted to hang out. The two energetic 6-year-olds walked to her backyard while deciding what to do, eventually agreeing to reenact “The Lion King.” Before they knew it, hours had passed and the sun was setting.
It was a successful first day in his new town. All of the family’s belongings had made it to the house and Nehring had made his first friend.
He registered for soccer and basketball with the base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program and eventually added football and baseball to the mix. Nehring, who played basketball and football through high school, said sports is his favorite thing in the world.
For military kids, friends can help ease the changes that come with deployments and frequent moves. Miller was that friend for Nehring when he was 8 and diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes while his father was deployed.
She was the first friend to visit him in the hospital. This solidified their friendship and they remain best friends to this day, staying connected through spontaneous visits and social media.
The nonmilitary parent is often the glue that holds the household together, and Nehring’s diagnosis prompted his mother to become a stay-at-home mom. “My mom always stayed strong for my brothers and me when we used to get sad as young kids,” he said.
Military children come to terms with not having their mothers or fathers around for a large portion of their lives, but having one less parent around for some time is frightening. As kids, Nehring and his brothers got upset when their father had to leave again. The tight hug, “see you soon,” and the wave goodbye never got any easier. “We knew that he didn’t want to leave us, but he had to go,” he said.
When his father deployed, the family made the best of the situation by coming up with creative ways to stay close to him through separations. During one of these absences, Nehring, his mother and brothers sent a pillowcase with their handprints on it, giving their father something he could hold close until he reunited with his family. This was in addition to the traditional cards and emails they send and receive when his father is overseas.
His father has deployed nine times in his career and each time Nehring said his mother helped keep everything feeling normal.
He said one of the worst parts about being a military child is moving away from friends—his family has moved five times in 19 years—and not being able to see extended family often. It’s tough to stay in touch with old friends, but social media helps, he said.
He has plenty of opportunities to improve his social media skills, too. Nehring attended three elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools. He never mentioned being a military child to his teachers and rarely discussed it with his friends, but when he did, all he heard was how cool it was to have friends all over the country.
Those friends are a great support system, but they can’t replace a parent on special occasions like when Nehring celebrated a birthday while his father was deployed to Afghanistan.
“I went to a Detroit Tigers baseball game and during the game on the scoreboard they showed a message from my dad telling me happy birthday,” he said, adding that he knew it was special because it came from his father overseas. “He [also] made a surprise return home when I was little. I was visiting family in Michigan and he popped out of a giant cardboard box [and] surprised my brothers, cousins and [me].”
Being a military child has its perks, too. When his father comes home, he usually has some sort of surprise up his sleeve, usually in the form of souvenirs from the different places he’s been. Nehring’s favorite is the boomerang from Australia, even though he and his brothers never played with it because his parents didn’t want to find it in pieces in the yard.
Military life has its challenges, but it also can help a family grow. Children who experience change every few years learn independence and resiliency. Nehring, who plans to start college next year and wants to be an X-ray technician, will call on both while deciding his next move. The possibility of his father being relocated brings him to a crossroads. He’s not sure if he should return to Michigan to be closer to extended family or start over again in a new town with his parents.
Regardless where he spends next year, Nehring is a young adult who said military children should be proud of their parents and understand that, while there may be tough times, they’ll make you stronger.
“I bet you will look back one day when you’re older and be grateful for everything that you went through,” he said. “I’m proud to be a military brat because of the good it has done for my life.”
—Alexa Gohl, a military brat, is the USO’s editorial services spring intern and a senior studying communication at George Mason University.
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