Growing up in the Army

‘You find that a lot of stage actors are Army or Navy brats, because they have the ability to make a big impression, make friends, and then leave just a few months later’ – John Michael Higgins

I’ve asked around a lot of my friends and we’ve all come to the conclusion that it’s a universal belief that we all had a normal childhood and that we’re all just the same as everyone else. I used to think that too. I used to think it was normal living a in a country where the majority of people spoke a different language, armed guards stood between you and the estate your school was on and there was a ‘secret’ underground bunker within walking distance to your house. Turns out that’s not quite everyone’s experience of childhood. Unless you’re a military brat like me of course.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a post about my childhood for a while but always decided it against it because it always just came across as ‘look how different and alternative I am’ but since Prince Harry recently spoke out about how service families display the morals and values that seem to be lacking in today’s society I thought why not. If I’ve got Hazza’s seal of approval that’s good enough for me!


I was actually born in Dudley in the West Midlands and spent my early life in Winchester. I moved to Brunssum in Holland when I was 4 though where we spent 3 years then Mons in Belgium for almost 5. The standard posting for most military families if 3 years maximum but my dad got promoted in Belgium so we stayed on a little longer.

Day to day I suppose you could say had a pretty normal childhood. The schooling was largely the same although in Holland we had a mix of American and British teachers which you would alternate between each school year and as such had a mixture of British and American cirruculums. A great example of which would be weekly ‘validations’ (where you were paired up with a different member of the class each week and had to write down all the things you liked about them) and ‘way to go’ badges when you did something good. It all seemed so normal at the time but now sounds sooooo American!

13445736_1246574172061034_7765455715074407561_nRobinson’s was the closest thing we had to McDonalds – but it was AMAZING!

In Belgium I went to small British section of an international school and class sizes were tiny (probably about 10 to a class on average) it meant you got a lot of one on one attention from teachers which is something I really struggled with when we moved back to England in 1993 and I was in a class of 30. The best thing about continental schools though were the continental school holidays. We got 10 weeks off in the summer and 3 weeks at Christmas. To compensate we had shorter half terms but you don’t really notice that at that age.




At Christmas one of the young soldiers would dress up as Santa and he and his elves would come round the streets giving the kids extra presents. It was customary to thank Santa with a small bottle of beer however as as the streets were names numerically, and we lived on 9th Street, Santa was always mortal by the time he got to us!

There’s a real community spirit on army bases which is unlike anything else I’ve ever known. You know pretty much everyone in your school and all live on the same housing estate, all your parents know each other too and there are loads of social events which would bring all nationalities together to celebrate (the 4th of July BBQs were particularly spectacular).  Kids didn’t really bully each other because if you messed around at school your dad would be pulled in front of the RSM and given a bollocking, which would undoubtedly be passed down to you – not that I had any first-hand experience at that, I was a good girl, i knew of it happening though. So all pretty idyllic really.

20180101_1638071830793.jpgWhat else do you do with a precocious 8 year old but throw her on the stage in community theatre! 

I didn’t realise how much my army upbringing had shaped me until much, much later in life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s instilled some great qualities in me which I’m not sure I’d possess had I lived in Cramlington my whole life; I’m good at making friends and adapting to new situations, I’m incredibly close to my parents and brother and my French comprehension is better than most.


The international school in Holland and the school playground in Belgium

However it’s not all frikandellen speciaals and nutella crepes. As a result of spending a vast majority of my childhood in a different country I only ever saw my grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins once a year if that. My grandparents never babysat for us and the idea of going to the same school as your cousin was completely alien to me. I hated having to wear a school uniform when we moved back to England in 1993 and a class size of 30 with bullies and bitchy girls who picked on you because you ‘spoke funny’ felt like Grange Hill meets a high security prison.

I married a man who was born and raised in the same house in Cramlington, who dreams of one day living in foreign lands where it’s sunny and warm all year round whereas I’m desperate to finally have some roots somewhere. I can tell you where I was born but not where I’m from, because I’m not ‘from’ anywhere. Born in Birmingham, schooled by Americans and speak like a posh Geordie doesn’t really have quite the right ring to it.


Bonus is the 4 of us are still insanely close

Emotionally it’s left me a bit of a sensitive softie. As a result of such small class sizes and a close knit group of kids who all liked each other, I’d never really encountered real bullying or come across anyone who didn’t like me for whatever reason. Without having anyone pick on you or tease you in your developmental years means you never really learn how to stand up for yourself properly and thus a people pleasing pushover is born.

So there you have it, the ying and yang that’s pretty much shaped who I am today. It’s not for me to say whether Harry is right; that that military families display values that are lacking in civilian life, because I only know one side of the coin. I know for sure though, despite the slight emotional incompetencies it may have left me with, I wouldn’t swap my childhood with anybody’s*

*accept maybe Princess Stephanie of Monaco

1 Comment

  1. newgirlintoon
    April 29, 2018 / 9:28 am

    Such a great read! Your blogs are always so interesting Helen! It sounds like you had such an interesting childhood and the memories you have must be so special, it’s lovely to have had such a different experience to the rest of us – the schooling sounds fantastic. To this day I’m still somewhat shaped by the bullying that I suffered as a teen, I don’t think it ever really goes away, I know that if I saw the bullies now 20 years later, I’d still worry and want to hide from them! It must have been a huge shock when you went into a normal school!

    Love the photos, doesn’t your Mum look like you!

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