Christy McAnally teaches her sixth-grade advance English class at Landstown Middle School in Virginia Beach, Va. (L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Quinn Cuskey said it’s like the Navy knows when he’s about to perform in a school concert. That’s always when his dad deploys.
Time and again, he’s watched his friends’ fathers come to school events, while his own is far away. Quinn, who’s in eighth grade, said it’s hard not knowing where his dad is, or whether he’s safe.
But it helps to know he’s not alone.
“You can’t bottle it up for nine months” of deployment, said Cianne Rodriguez, another eighth-grader whose father is in the Navy. At a recent meeting of the Landstown Middle School BRATs Club, sitting across a circle from Quinn, she made a face and shook her head.
“The worst part is when something important comes up and they’re not there,” she said. “You know it’s not their fault, but you’re crushed. Like birthdays and Christmas.”
Few people know how important such discussions are to military children better than Christy McAnally, the Landstown English teacher who founded the BRATs Club nearly three years ago. As the daughter of a Marine pilot, she moved all over the world, attending three high schools and learning later how her unusual childhood affected her as an adult.
Now, she wants to help children going through the same things she experienced: the thrill of living in foreign countries, the pride in a parent who serves, but also the constant worry, the many moves and the sense of belonging that’s lost to a child with no place to call home.
“She gets what it’s like,” said Emily Nordan, a BRATs Club member whose father is in the Navy.
“Knowing you, trying to support you. Being here,” said Macayla Weissman, a sixth-grader. “She does these things so we can be accepted.”
The term “BRAT” comes from an acronym from across the pond: British Regiment Attached Traveler. It was used originally for the wives and children of soldiers but later came to refer to the children.
The term fits McAnally to a “T.” Her grandfather, a Marine, was the first person to explore Antarctica from the air, and her father met her mother at a military reception.
McAnally was born in Pensacola, Fla., and as a child moved to South Carolina, California, North Carolina, Virginia, Italy — the list goes on. Some of it was wonderful, she said, such as skiing in Switzerland and taking her senior trip to Greece.
“It was just an incredible way to grow up,” she said. She got good at making friends fast, but when it came time to move again, she said, it was hard to say goodbye.
Fast-forward through a marriage, a divorce, three daughters and a move from Texas to Virginia and McAnally, who turns 55 this month, finally has reconnected with many of those lost friends through social media. It wasn’t nearly as easy to keep in touch before Facebook, and she began to have conversations with fellow BRATs about the effect of growing up military.
What she learned was compounded by a documentary screened in Virginia Beach. Made by the Colorado-based nonprofit Brats Without Borders, the film features former BRATs talking about feeling rootless, adapting to civilian culture and shying away from permanent relationships because, as children, friendships were always fleeting.
“Military kids, we don’t have a geographic home,” said Donna Musil, founder of the organization and a former Army BRAT who moved 12 times in 16 years. “Our home is our experiences. That’s what binds us.”
At Landstown Middle, McAnally turned to her classroom.
“I was seeing there were students who all had that BRAT experience in common but didn’t know that about one another,” she said. “That conversation had to take place. And I thought it was important to have an adult in their lives who grew up feeling the same things they feel.”
At a recent BRATs Club meeting, about 30 preteens high on pizza and spring fever bounced around the school cafeteria. The club does lots of community service, getting-acquainted games, and trips to Busch Gardens and all-night laser tag. The idea is to have fun getting to know each other, so when someone’s going through a rough patch, there’s someone to talk to.
When asked, students immediately opened up about moving, stepping up at home during a deployment and handling parents who return with post-traumatic stress disorder. A girl said when her father finally got home, her mother reminded her not to make any loud noises that could “freak him out.” A boy recalled a club member whose father was killed in Afghanistan, and another said he especially misses his father during football season.
All said they love the club. Kids who aren’t from military families just don’t understand the way BRATs do, they said.
“If you’re hurting, you can tell other people, and they’ll know what it feels like,” said Amanda Linch, a sixth-grader.
Through BRATs Without Borders, McAnally is encouraging other schools to start similar clubs. Musil said it gives children a way to be an insider in a life of being an outsider — a safe place to say what they think and feel.
“Does that make them emotionally and mentally stronger? I think so,” she said.
In the past few months, McAnally has started traveling around the country with Brats Without Borders to give workshops helping military families cope with stress and deployment. Her three daughters are finally out of the house, and she’s spending her newfound free time on projects helping military children.
In the fall, she went to bat for a First Colonial High School student whose family moved to Japan, prompting the Virginia High School League to invoke a rule keeping her from rejoining the cheerleading team for her senior year. McAnally had taught the girl’s older sister and learned about the VHSL decision from a Facebook post.
“That’s when I said, ‘Oh no, that’s not going to happen,’” McAnally said. “She can’t get back those memories of her high school. That was a crime, to deny her those opportunities.”
After a flurry of press and attention from elected officials, the girl got back on the team. In the spring, teacher and student traveled to Richmond to lobby for a bill that would make sure no other military child gets caught in the same tangle. The law takes effect in July.
If McAnally had her way, no child would ever feel like the only kid whose parents aren’t around, the only one caught in rules made for nonmilitary families, the only new kid in school. They’d never feel alone, because they’d know they’re far from the only one.
That’s what it’s like in the BRATs Club. When McAnally called, over the din of jabbering students, “What’s it like to be a military kid?” they answered with one loud voice:
“We know, and we get you!”