Life in the Fortress: An Interview with Mary Edwards Wertsch

Life in the Fortress: An Interview with Mary Edwards Wertsch

By Ellen Spears

Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 16-20

Ellen Spears: What makes Military Brats so powerful at its core is your own experience as a military daughter. Speaking from that voice gives you a special authority and a special strength.

Mary Edwards Wertsch: It was a struggle for me because I did not originally plan to include my own story. I am a journalist, a newspaper reporter. I did not know Pat Conroy, but I wanted to tell him that it was because of The Great Santini that I was embarking on this book. I just wanted to thank him for opening my eyes. I didn’t know … if he would even be receptive. He, of course, turned up as this wonderful, warm, gregarious, supportive person. And then we started swapping stories.

In the course of that conversation he said, “Mary, you have got to put your own story in the book.” I said, “No, I’m not. I am a reporter, and I am doing this like everything else I have done.”

…. So I sat down to write the first chapter I wrote, the Daughters of Warriors chapter, and realized immediately that I would have to put my story in it. If I did not it was going to lack authenticity and passion and probably credibility.

It was cathartic. It had to be done, but I shrieked, I screamed as I wrote my brother’s story. My brother was 11 years older, and I was just a little girl watching him get beaten every night. The helplessness. The anger. So even though I was working through a lot of feelings about my father and affirming my love—you can have these feelings side by side—I was shrieking out at this bastard who did

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these things. I got my brother’s permission to use it in the book. People have a hard time reading those middle chapters of the book. But I say to people, please read to the end because the book is about healing. I was at Fort Bragg [N.C.] and did a signing at the PX. There was a woman who was waiting for me when I arrived, a silver-haired woman, a colonel’s wife, I believe. She told me, “I have to tell you when I read your hardback last year, I started it and I was thinking why are you torturing us like this? The more I read the more I found myself thinking this is really true, this is really true.” She bought four paperbacks for her four grown kids. She had me inscribe each one. She is giving them to her kids on the Fourth of July, saying, “Read the last chapter first”

E: A lot of military families come through the South at one point or another. Did you feel any particular things about this region in the interviews or in your own experience?

M: The Southern connection for me? Well, my mother is from Athens, Georgia. When I was growing up, it was the only geographical place I felt tied to in any way. I had only visited there a few times. But I yearned for it.

I wanted to be like my cousins who were rooted and had such a supportive network of people. I keep trying to find out what rootedness is in various ways.

I think Pat Conroy is a strong example that people can relate to. He was born in Atlanta but like most military brats that is coincidental. He was Marine Corps, and they stayed mainly in bases in the South. Because his mother was also Southern, from Alabama, be felt a connection here, too.

Military brats have to find some place to roost when they are adults. Pat wanted roots. He decided he was going to be a Southerner.

The South has a tremendous appeal for military brats because in accent, lifestyle, and culture it is something. We want to be somebody from somewhere, to have a sense of belonging. Of course for me, writing this book was an exercise in finding out who I really am as a military brat. I found out that I do have roots. Very intense ones.

I just visited Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville. My father was stationed at there for a year and a half. I went to half of third grade and all of fourth there. It was a wonderful post to live on at that time. It had great trees to climb and bushes to hide in. To return there was a little nostalgic to me. Every military base feels like home to a military brat because it is so familiar no matter whether you want to be in the military or would never do it, it feels like home. But you cannot find my name or my family’s name anywhere on that base or anyone who knew us. There is a total changeover in people all the time.

E: In The Great Santini, the family must move out of the house when the father dies; it is almost seamless with the funeral. They empty out of the house and are on their way.

M: Right. That is one of the really terrible tragedies of military life. Right when you lose, for example, the father (in that case in an accident), it can happen at any time, or war, you have to lose all the support of the community, too. You are banished from the community. Kicked out.

E: What are you saying about the culture and feeling more at home here, is it more hospitable to military culture in the South?

M: Do you mean there seems to almost be a Southern tradition to serve in the military? A lot of people have Southern connections to it to their relatives. The South is loaded with bases. It is probably cheaper for DOD to have them in the South because you do not have to shovel snow and you do not have to have problems flying in and out. It is a good place for air bases.

E: During my three years with SANE/FREEZE, one of the things that we noted was that the Southern political climate has been much more hospitable to military interests, with Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and Richard Russell before him in the Armed Services Committee, there’s a heavy concentration of bases here.

M: They all like defense contracts because ostensibly that brings jobs. Of course it does, but the military is certainly not the best investment of money to produce jobs. It is not labor intensive. It is a lot of hardware.

E: What is happening to people now that there are cutbacks in military spending?

M: There is a tremendously high stress level in the military now because of this RIF, Reduction in Force…. Plus this is coming on the heels of a war, the Gulf War, when the divorces among active duty personnel skyrocket …. What does the Department of Defense do at this time in the wake of the war, they know that divorces are skyrocketing, there are all kinds of family problems

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happening. They cut the medical benefits, the CHAMPUS benefits. They raised the deductible which made it unaffordable for many military families to go get counseling or psychiatric help.

It is tremendously stressful. If you are in some line of work within the military that translates well into civilian life, it might be some financial thing, it might be computers, the stress is still there but not quite as threatening. But let us say you are an infantryman. You are a trained killer. What are you going to do? Or you are a tank driver. What do you do? That means you are not only talking about that individual but the wife and the children. And most people in the military are married. Most of those families do have children.

E: There was this image in the Gulf War of both parents going or the mom going. How has that affected military families?

M: I was outraged at that. I find it unconscionable that both parents would be sent to a combat zone. What can they be thinking of to do that? It is bad enough when one parent is sent, but when both parents are sent to a combat zone, that is a trauma those children will have to deal with the rest of their lives. It is inexcusable. You had a Secretary of Defense, Cheney, who had an exemption from combat duty in Vietnam because he had a wife who was pregnant and a child at home.

There was talk of chemical bombing, biological warfare. Some mothers obviously were in combat zones. For the most part women are in a support capacity. That means they are targeted because the enemy frequently in warfare will try to cut off the supply fines first. That means they are sitting ducks for chemical, biological weaponry.

This was reported on the news …. Military brats watch the news. I can tell you from Vietnam days and before and from people I interviewed, civilian kids might not have even known there was a war going on. Military kids knew about the Tet offensive. They were looking for their fathers. They were looking for their father’s friends on the news.

E: You talk in the book about the mother’s role as the revisionist family historian.

M: I talk some about the importance of myth in military families and the military in general. The military is like a Greek drama. You have archetypes walking around all over the place. As Pat Conroy once told me, it is not easy being the child of an archetype.

Military parents have a very tough challenge. I am deeply sympathetic to them. I think this is part of healing for those of us from dysfunctional families is to find empathy truly for our parents because they often did the best they could. I do not believe in obscuring accountability for really terrible acts at all, but I do think it is possible to get past that, and part of that is to put ourselves in our parents shoes.

Mothers in the military see themselves as responsible for keeping the family together through endless uprootings and the threat of war, real war sometimes, all sorts of coping situations. Part of the way they do this is to spin myths. It is a very important thing to give to them as they see it to give children a version that will help them, a helpful version. It may not be true at all. Your father loves you. Your father wants to be with you. Your father wants to spend more time with you. That may not be true at all. But how can I say that was not a useful thing to be told at the time?

The thing is that the child grows up and begins to see the holes in the story and then you sense the hurt and the outrage at the lies. There is a tendency to blame the mother who has spun this lie, this myth.

There are other myths. Of course there is always the myth that, and here I am treading on dangerous territory from the military point of view, there is always a myth in the military that every action in which they engage is for the freedom of the United States. That is a cardinal belief.

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In fact I think it was yesterday in North Carolina I passed by in the car this enormous old Veteran’s Administration hospital. Neatly manicured lawn in front. A large brick place with white columns and a big sign out front that said “Veteran’s Administration Hospital.” Let us see if I can get the name right that they had on the front: “Here is where the price that we pay for freedom is visible.” That is a myth right there: for freedom.

Military families, in view of the tremendous sacrifice they are making day in and day out need to lean on myths like that. I do not begrudge them that. They need it to survive. It is important for those on the outside of the military to see that a bit more clearly and try to affect public policy.

I have belonged to many anti-war groups and one during the Gulf War, too …. Whenever I spoke I made that point that I was not condemning the military people but the policy that was directed by the civilian government

…. I had the strong sense during the Gulf War that the entire thing, the Gulf War itself, the patriotic fervor, everything, had nothing to do with the situation in the Middle East. It had everything to do with Vietnam. It was trying to cleanse that, to purge that out of the national soul. You cannot purge things out of the national soul. Certainly not by papering it over with more lies.

E: What about the sons and the daughters?

M: I have gotten letters a couple of hundred letters from military brats who have identified strongly …. There was one son who called me. He was really affected by the book. He really likes the book, but he said it was very hard for him because it burst his own particular myth. To find that he is a classic military son right down the checklist was disturbing to him. The sons do not feel as much in control of their lives as they thought they were.

Military daughters respond, find themselves the classical military brat daughters, and for them it comes as a huge relief. A daughter gets the same information and feels very comforted. Maybe what men have done is to develop a kind of myth that their isolation is their strength. To find a book that completely contradicts that is disturbing. I may suggest that maybe a son would never have written this book.

E: You have written about feeling as fact in away that I think is unique to a woman’s point of view.

M: I have just started work on another book that is a natural extension,…. the military is not out of my system.

Various people have told me since this book came out, “Oh, the next one you have to do about the wives.”

There has been one book on that, but there needs to be another more profound, slightly different book. I always say a wife should write that book, not me. And black military brats need to write their own story and gays and lesbians need to write theirs. People need to raise their voices and contribute to the literature on our culture.

What I decided is do one on the men. The kind of book I have in mind will never be written by any of them. It is about the emotional realities of serving in the military, all the question marks that are superimposed over my entire experience inside the fortress. All the things I wanted to know about as a child but could not even articulate my questions much less be allowed to ask. I would like to know about their glorious feeling of the joining with this warrior persona that fuels them, that fires them and once a Marine always a Marine. Why? About the glory they can feel in battle. The fear and the terrible loss and the bonding with buddies in war that is unlike anything else and is far more powerful than their ties to their own families. People say it cannot be duplicated in anything in civilian life. ….I want to know about the broken hearts and souls of vets. And, of course, family issues. All these are the emotional realities. These are the very things that the military tries to train its men to distance themselves from. Authoritarians do not key in to the inner voice or anything they feel.

E: I think you may have unlocked something very revealing about our entire culture, with “rise and shine” and “gung ho” and all the language. That was a part of my family. I am not a military brat. My father spent two, maybe four, years in the merchant marine in World War II, but that was part of our life, making the bed with military comers. It has a tremendous influence in civilian life.

M: One of the scariest things going on is that our country seems to be styling itself as the warrior country of the world. There is even a paper that came out of the Pentagon as they try to find a new role for themselves in the wake of the Cold War. This Pentagon paper said there is no need for more than one superpower in the world. Guess who that is going to be? There are tremendous dangers in this and one of the things among others is a masculine/feminine split in society. What is this going to mean emotionally to our country if we adopt this stance in the world? We already see what happens, women and children get short shrift. Infant mortality goes up and the shelters for battered women get closed down. Men as well as women need to raise their voices. We cannot let this

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E: What impressed me the most was your reconciliation, your ability through clear and careful ground rules, to find love for your father.

M: It is not always possible. I think it important to see that too because I think that wounded adults from dysfunctional families do not need the additional burden of guilt when reconciliation really is not possible. It takes two to reconcile. Sometimes the parent for some reason is not willing or is too sick or whatever. It is not always possible but in that case I really do believe. I could not actually conceive of writing the book if he were still living because I valued our reconciliation…. He would not have been able to stand the revelations of this book.

So where reconciliation is not possible with a living parent it is still possible to continue the dialogue with the inner parent because they are within us; they are part of us.

E: Is there a connection between what you have written and the Tailhook scandal?

M: Even the military realizes that what happened there is unconscionable yet that it was typical. Tailhook was not a unique occurrence. There was a de facto license to conduct themselves in this way and not just in Tailhook but in other aspects of military life. The military has been willing to overlook egregious behavior if it suited the military’s purpose in some way. For example, alcohol.

Why has the military tolerated it when it caused so much damage? Damage to the mission, to the relationships with the civilian community to the warriors themselves, to their families. Why has it been tolerated? Actually encouraged.

The answer is that it suited the military’s purposes and what they believed contributed to bonding. They believe men needed an outlet. And perhaps they felt that it also anesthetized those dangerous emotions. Maybe stilled the questions that men ask themselves about what they are going to be ordered to do and why. I think it has suited to the military’s purpose to have alcohol abused. That’s the ugly truth.

The Gulf War, however, was a totally dry war. They seemed to have done what they chose to do to their own satisfaction without the help of alcohol.

I think the same goes with behavior toward women. Obviously the military does not say that it is alright to go and harass and rape women. But all armies have done this through time. Their commanders, I believe, looked the other way when this happened. This is a more modern version of that behavior. They must feel that it is a kind of outlet that warriors require. Again it is where the feminine voice has to be raised. And there are plenty of men who just despise that kind of behavior. Military men.

E: Tell me more about the organization, Military Brats, Inc.

M: It is just beginning now. It was founded by an Air Force brat named Pamela James. The name was changed. It was first Adult Children of Military Personnel. I assented to that…. [but] later I really changed my mind on that and I asked for it to be discussed among the board and other people felt the same way. There are several things wrong with that name. I do not like the term “adult child” in the first place. It infantalizes grownups who ought to be recognizing their pain but coping with it in a mature responsible way instead of whining. The other thing is that it suggests that this organization is only for military brats only from dysfunctional families and maybe only those who are dysfunctional themselves now. That is a narrowing; we wanted a much broader scope to this. It is an organization for all military brats including those from healthy loving families.

But all military brats regardless of the health of their families have a problem with issues of loss stemming from the extreme mobility of that life. This is the kind of thing that really needs to be talked about because there are such strong repercussions in adulthood, really solid patterns that we have to recognize and break.

It is Military Brats, Inc. It is not named after my book. It is named for the same reason as my book: to identify the group that we are trying to reach. There is a network of support groups.

Soon there will be a newsletter. There is also a computer registry described in the brochure so that we can voluntarily register our information and eventually we hope do computer searches to track down long lost childhood friends. It is very important to us because we lost literally everyone through our childhoods apart from our nuclear families.

We are looking for people who are interested in starting up local chapters.

Military Brats Inc. can be contacted at
P.O. Box 82262
Lincoln, Nebraska 68501-2262

Mary Edwards Wertsch, author of Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, chronicles the stories of those who served in the military without ever enlisting, the children of military families. Southern Changes managing editor Ellen Spears interviewed Wertsch in June, 1992.