Growing up and travelling in the army

By the time I was nine, I’d lived in five different houses and three different countries. Until my early teen years, my dad was in the army, living in one house until coming to university was a foreign concept to me. I was born in 1999 in Dundonald, a suburb of Belfast, and lived in Holywood until 2001, when we moved to Portadown. My sister was born there in 2002, and in 2003 we relocated to Gütersloh, Germany. In March 2008 we moved to Preston, Lancashire, where I lived in England for the first time. We stayed here for just over a year until settling in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, where my family has lived since May 2009. 

As most of these experiences took place when I was very young, I chatted to my mum about army life and relocating every few years. Her father was also in the army, so she shared that she didn’t find it a hard life adjustment to make when she married my dad, as she grew up in similar circumstances. She told me that: “Whilst it was not easy, it was easier than a normal situation where people move abroad because everything was done for us. The movers, a house, the soldier had a job immediately, on bigger camps there were schools, doctors, dentists. If there weren’t then there would be arrangements in place, speaking the local language is never a necessity for the Armed Forces abroad.” One thing that we both found extremely helpful is that everyone around you is in the same position. Families of soldiers all tend to live within the same block of flats, or the same housing estate, so it was easy to make friends with the families next door and over the road. Socialising was made more comfortable as we all had similar backgrounds and understood that we could act for support systems for one another as extended family wasn’t around. “Things were easier in Germany because every child in the school/preschool was a forces child or attached in some way i.e. child of a doctor or teacher who worked on camp. Pupils and staff were used to change and dealing with children going through separation and maybe worse,” my mum remembered. “For many years in the UK, forces children were grouped with Gypsy children by the government because of the constant moving and gaps in education. You didn’t know any different so just accepted your life as the norm.”

The practicalities of moving aren’t something that I have much memory of. I have vague memories of long car journeys, but what stands out to me more was the social side of moving constantly. Most of us kids had fairly robust attitudes to our surroundings and the changing cycles of our social circles. “I feel that it made you more self-sufficient, accepting of differences in others and it broadened your horizons,” my mum told me, and I definitely agree. I’m used to meeting new people and having limited and inconsistent contact with my family, things that I feel made my 170 mile move to university easier than average. 

I mentioned earlier that my mum’s parents were in the army. When we lived in Gütersloh, my grandparents lived in Varese, Italy, and I remember doing a lengthy road trip to visit them. Somehow, despite all of my moves, we never flew. In fact, I didn’t travel on a plane until this summer. It was difficult to be away from family, but also helped that my grandparents were rarely stationed in the UK and understood that my sister and I were being raised in an unusual environment, much as their children had been. Relocating didn’t always guarantee that we were living with my dad. There were still times when he would be away on exercise and we weren’t able to see him for months. With both him and my grandparents, we would send letters, drawings and postcards, as speaking regularly on the phone couldn’t be guaranteed. When I moved to university, we introduced the sending of cards as a way to keep in touch. My mum said that this helped keep us all connected and build a strong bond that is still evident today. 

Living abroad meant that we always made the most of visits to England. We’d have to visit as many family and friends as possible in a week so as to not offend anyone about who we chose to spend our limited time with. “This week was often spent being asked where we were going on holiday that year,” my mum told me. “We had to tell people ‘this is it’.” I was also told about one week where we did a cheeky seaside holiday in England without anyone’s knowledge. It could be tiring, having to make your holidays as productive as possible, and it was strange to have a holiday that was actually just us four. 

It sounds fun, getting to move around a lot, and constantly interact with new friends, but obviously there were times when it was pretty hard. My mum said that “The hardest year was 2006 when due to Iraq and courses, Dad was gone for 9 months. It was not easy, but I never felt too entitled to complain as I felt it was harder on your Dad not seeing you, at least we had each other. This made the last few years difficult and whilst we had always said we would never live apart, buying a house, getting you settled into school and me in work was a huge help to get us all transitioned into civvy street.” However, she also said: “Whilst there were always tears as Dad left and occasional tears during absences, I don’t remember any great distress or issues caused by absences. It was what it was. We very much had an attitude of chin up, get on with it, but not in a detrimental way, just enough to keep going and have enough left over for the colleague or neighbour who needed to lean on you now and then.” I think this was the best attitude we could have had. The stereotype of growing up in the army is quite negative, but there are things that are overlooked. Getting to grow up in a variety of places was really interesting and gave me a unique experience during my formative years, and I feel much better prepared to deal with the difficulties that life can throw at you. My mum summarised her feelings, “The Army gave us an amazing life and great opportunities and I personally feel that that outweighs any negatives.”

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Ellie Robson

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May 2022
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