What is an Army brat? Where does the term come from?
Photo: Army brats normally wear civilian clothes, but here in Fort Huachuca of 1963 is my brother George, for the fun of it, wearing a small Army uniform that his three older brothers wore before him.
An Army brat is the child of a soldier. Usually, the term is applied to those children who have moved more than once, sometimes overseas, because the Army has ordered their fathers or mothers from one post to another.
“Army brat” is a respectful title, as are the similar designations for children of the other military branches, Navy brats, Air Force brats, Marine brats, and Coast Guard brats. Navy brats and Marine brats also are called Navy juniors and Marine juniors.
The word “brat” goes back at least 1,000 years, when it was applied to a blanket or clothing for an infant or toddler. By the 1500s, “brat” simply meant a child. By itself, the word can have humorous, even insulting meanings. In a scolding tone of voice, “brat” implies a child is annoying, selfish and nasty.
Term of endearment. But for children of the military, “brat” is a term of endearment that recognizes the blessings and hardships, the bonds and separations, the introductions and farewells of their nomadic lives. An Army brat’s childhood involves repeatedly leaving old friends and homes, so the “brat” title also refers to the ability to adjust to losses, and to adapt to new people and places with resilience and a smile.
Some say the term “brat,” as applied to children of the armed forces, dates to around 1920. It was then that Britain officially used the term British Regiment Attached Traveler (BRAT) to identify any soldier’s family member – a spouse or child – who was permitted to go overseas with the soldier. The word also may have been a contraction for “barrack rats,” a term used in the 1700s to describe children allowed to live with soldiers in a barracks.
The term doesn’t appear to have been commonly used in the United States until just before World War II. An April 4, 1938, article in The Lincoln (Nebraska) Star mentions a short trip taken by “Army brats,” two daughters and two sons of officers stationed at Fort Omaha, Nebraska.
No offense. The Columbus, Indiana, Republic on March 30, 1939, reported that “One of the 43 boys and girls in the Edinburgh [Indiana] senior class is an army brat, which is a term Army people apply to their own children and others of Army parentage indiscriminately and not meaning any offense. She’s Sophia, 15-year-old daughter of Capt. George Middleton. He’s been in the Regular Army about 20 years and of course has been moved around a lot, so Sophia’s gone to school several places, including three years in the Hawaiian Islands. She a bright little girl, and will be the youngest student ever to graduate from Edinburgh High School.”
Brat general. Lt. General Hugh A. Drum, who served the U.S. First Army in both world wars, was known as “the Army brat” well into his adulthood because he was born in Fort Brady, Michigan, and grew up in various other Army posts with his father, Capt. John Drum. Capt. Drum was killed in the Spanish-American War in the 1898 Battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba. President McKinley responded by giving 18-year-old Hugh Drum an immediate lieutenant’s commission, no West Point needed. Hugh Drum went on to fight in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines in 1899, and eventually became a general, active in the Army until 1943.
A Brat’s Opinion. In spring of 1940, Catherine Unger of Fort Knox, Kentucky, sent a poem written by her daughter, Bette, to The Louisville Courier-Journal, which published it. Bette’s father was Army Col. Charles H. Unger.
Bette’s poem was called “A Brat’s Opinion”:
I was born to the boom of a cannon,
And a drum’s loud rat-a-tat-tat;
No, I’m not a German immigrant,
I’m just an Army brat!
I’ve packed my little suitcase
All over the U.S.A.:
Will probably never settle down
’Til after judgment day.
I’ve left good friends a-plenty,
At every “port of call”;
But we really never say goodbye,
’Cause the world is awfully small.
For Army brats today, that description still seems to fit.
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