Sometimes the life of a military teen reads like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.
You arrive at your parent’s next assignment–new house, new school, new social soup. Do you:
Dive right in? (turn to page 2)
Hang back? (turn to page 3)
That’s the choice – maybe the biggest choice – facing milteens at a new location: do we open up
our hearts to a new set of friends or keep our heads down and shields up?
I’m not here to tell you there’s a perfect, or even an easy, choice. I’ve aged out of brathood, but
I’ve played it both ways, and I discovered there are pros and cons to both decisions.
Option 1: Dive right in
When my family moved to MacDill AFB in Tampa, I started freshman year at a public high school. My classmates and I experienced high school for the first time together, so I didn’t feel like a newcomer. I threw myself into friendships, track and cross country, and clubs.
Was there a 3-year timer counting down in the back of my mind? Yes, and that was a constant source of low-grade sadness, knowing I wouldn’t graduate with my friends. But Option 1 is all about carpe diem, and I made great memories and connections. The big negative: the heartbreak when the moving van inevitably comes to rip you away from the life you built. The more ties you make, the more those heartstrings hurt when you pull away.
Option 2: Hang back
After Tampa, my family relocated to the beautiful United States Air Force Academy outside Colorado Springs. I’d lived there before in elementary school, and it was bizarre to meet old classmates – all of them civilians – who’d continued through the base school system. Coming into senior year, the local inside jokes were lost on me, the friend groups felt set in stone, and a stress fracture kept me from joining the running teams.
So I focused on academics, and I was able to carry my heavy course load pretty easily… because I didn’t have a life. It was a lonely time – the big negative of Option 2. I knew I’d be leaving for college on the east coast after graduation, so while I found people to eat lunch and study for AP Lit tests with, I wasn’t there to make new friends. Instead, I kept in touch with old ones, and I hung out with my family a lot, which turned out to be a blessing. My dad deployed when I left for college, so that year in Colorado sticks in my memory as the last time we were really a family before kids left the nest. We’re still close, and I attribute a lot of that to the connections we made while everything around us changed every few years.
As spunky military teen protagonists, you get to make a choice every time you move: to form new connections or lean on old ones? As I said before, neither option protects you from heartbreak or loneliness, and circumstances might push you toward one or the other. Whichever you decide, make sure you have a tribe, even if it’s your nuclear family.
Author and journalist Sebastian Junger wrote a whole book about the importance of tribes called (you guessed it) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. He served as a war reporter in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s and interviewed veterans about their experience returning home. He’s written books, made films, and spoken on the topics of connection, trauma, and meaningful community. A lot of what he says rings true for me as I think about my experience as a military kid.
One quote that’s stuck with me:
“Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.”
Isolation, Junger writes, is terrible for humans. Despite our iPhones and wifi, we need a sense of
connection as much as prehistoric hunter-gatherers. We still need our tribe. How can you find yours? Maybe you make deep connections in a new place bravely, knowing it’ll hurt when your time there is over. Maybe you focus more on family or past connections and accepting some local loneliness. Whatever you do, make the choice that keeps you feeling fulfilled, authentic, and connected to the tribe you need.