Growing Up in a Military Family

Karen M. Sheehan - Valatie, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, November 16, 2012
Karen M. Sheehan

Karen Sheehan grew up in a military family that traveled constantly throughout her childhood. But no matter where in the world they lived, her mother always made it home.

Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: family, war

Once upon a time, I think it was 1963, there was a handsome young officer and his beautiful young wife. Their names were Jack and Inez. They were in a large metropolitan airport about to fly off to a foreign land to serve their country. Inez, ever the lady, was wearing a lovely gray suit with a pencil skirt and heels. Over her left shoulder was a clean diaper. In her arms was a tiny baby boy, the youngest of her seven children. She held onto the hand of a toddler; each child in turn was holding onto the next, youngest to oldest, so that no one would break formation and disrupt the process. Jack was handling nine passports, dealing with customs officials, and managing umpteen suitcases, all with military precision. Finally, we boarded the plane and settled in for a thirteen-hour flight to a country where we didn’t know anyone or speak the language.

I think that’s when it dawned on me that we were a military family. Before going overseas we had lived throughout the U.S., and it just never occurred to me that not everyone’s address was Fort Something or other, named after a long-dead general. We knew if my dad went to work in dress blues, he’d be home for dinner. If he went to work in fatigues, however, he would probably be gone for weeks. The worry was unspoken, but palpable when he was gone, especially for a long time—to Korea, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his tour in Vietnam.

My mom put her nursing career on hold to support a soldier and raise their children; she was always there for us. No matter where in the world we lived, she made it our home. Within days of moving in, the boxes were unpacked, curtains were up on the windows, and pictures were hung on the walls. Amidst the disruption of traveling, starting a new school, and learning about a new community, she created an oasis for us. Throughout their years together, my parents had different but equally important tasks—my dad defended the country, and my mom defended the family.

Their story continued with my dad retiring after a long and distinguished military career. He and my mom divorced several years after his tour of duty in Vietnam. My mom retired from nursing, held in high esteem by colleagues and patients alike. And their children grew into caring, productive adults.

I have come to believe that it is possible to learn from and make meaning of life events, no matter how challenging they are. I believe that it’s really important to unpack the boxes, put up the curtains, and hang pictures on the wall, wherever I happen to be. And finally, I believe we should acknowledge our veterans, past and present, and their spouses, for the dedication it takes to be a military family.

Karen M. Sheehan was born an Army ‘brat’ in Cambridge, England. Her family moved throughout the United States and Europe until she was 15; they returned to Chester County, Pennsylvania when her father went to Vietnam. Ms. Sheehan attended the State University of New York, earning a BA in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She has been a psychotherapist in agency and private practice for over 20 years. Ms. Sheehan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Program Manager at the VA Medical Center in Albany, New York, working with combat veterans and their families.

Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc. This essay is part of our collection Stories from the Military Family.