"Bullied in a Department of Defense School" by Karin Wandrei, PhD, LCSW

Friday, February 22, 2019

I was bullied throughout my school years in the 1960’s because of my height, being a nerd, having a speech defect, being physically awkward, and having poor social skills. My bullying was mostly name calling, usually while changing classes, since I never attended school events. To this day it is too painful to say out loud the names that I was called.

Department of Defense schools are different from regular public schools. Not only were kids reluctant to say anything but when their parents found out, often nothing was done by the school. Kids had to continue to see their offender every day. I never told anyone although I got along well with most of my teachers. I don’t even remember telling my Army psychiatrist about my bullying who I saw for three years after my suicide attempt.

Living on a military base had its own set of challenges. One high school would serve all of the surrounding bases in the area. My bus ride was 45 minutes across town but there were students who traveled an hour and a half to get to school. This impacted a student’s ability to get involved in any after-school activities since transportation was a big issue. It also meant that students often lived in different communities so they may not have much contact outside of school. Military life is characterized by frequent moves. You could make a friend, but they could move at any time. This was a terrible environment for kids with poor social skills. It bred the feeling of complete isolation without having much control over their environment.

My school bus started with picking up the non-commissioned officer (NCOs) kids, then went to the housing area where the colonels lived, and then on to the generals’ and admirals’ kids. Even though we rode the same small bus, the officer’s kids ignored us. In the military, the class system is alive and well and service members wear uniforms indicating their rank. Learning this system is an important part of basic training. Military members are prohibited from socializing with higher ranking members because it would impact the all-important command structure of obeying orders that underlies military life. While it may not be a formal rule, children of enlisted personnel were subject to this same expectation because our parents couldn’t socialize. In a “he said, she said” situation involving an officer’s kid bullying a sergeant’s kid, the sergeant could put their career at risk by speaking up.

Military culture traditionally is patriarchal. Even the women in the military need to abide by this warrior culture to be successful. It values traits of traditional masculinity that can easily become toxic and lead to violence. These include not asking for help, stuffing emotions, conformity, respecting hierarchy, using dominance, even violence if necessary, and “othering” those who are different (with the unique exception of race due to desegregation that happened in 1947). Bullying is a part of basic training and you are a wimp if you can’t take it.

An excellent 2006 documentary Brats: Our Journey Home, describes the impact of this culture on kids. Military dependents, especially males, are strongly encouraged and supported into going into the military. Military families often look down on civilians because they have not chosen to serve their country. Some parents run their households like military units, as seen in the movie The Great Santini. The Brats documentary makes it clear that military culture is not conducive to what growing children need, especially girls.

Given the unique characteristics of growing up in the military, those kids who don’t fit in are at significant risk of being bullied.