January 4, 2017
By Judy McSpadden
Who are “military kids” anyway?
The typical response is they’re children of the members of Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps service members. They are the “military brats” Mary Wertsch affectionately describes in her book of the same name. Sharing traits with other “dependents” who live within the military establishment, these children are familiar with parental (mostly father) absences, patriotism, discipline, and frequent moves.
But what if the “brat” is a part-timer? What if the mom or dad is a member of the National Guard, a military component composed of citizen soldiers, who have civilian jobs most of the time and are activated in times of training or crisis? Is the child still considered a “military kid?”
For Alex and Erika Ortner, whose Guard dad was deployed for six years of their lives, there’s no question. “We are part of the fight as much as any branch,” said Erika, whose dad, Maj. Gen. Blake Ortner, with 30 years’ military service, recently accepted precedent-setting command of both Guard and Active Duty troops in the Middle East. “It grinds my gears a little,” said Erika, “when people comment ‘Oh your dad’s just a weekend warrior.’”
General Ortner, who works full time for a Washington D.C. veteran’s association, is currently on his fifth deployment, each averaging a year in length. His wife, Kristen, having lived in the same Virginia town for 25 years, confessed that these days, “I’m finally admitting I’m a military wife.”
“I’m so proud of my dad,” said Erika, who attends a college in northern Virginia, “but it hasn’t been easy being a Guard kid.”
Our Military Kids, a nonprofit organization supporting children of deployed National Guard and Reserve service members and children of wounded warriors, provided activity grants to Erika and Alex during their dad’s deployment to Iraq in 2007. Erika remembers the OMK packet she received in the mail. “It made me feel important,” she said, “A kid’s looking for a distraction when their soldier’s gone. The grant paid for voice lessons, but it also made me feel like someone was taking care of my brother and me when my dad was gone. I remember wearing the wristband that came in the packet. I was so proud to be a military kid.”
During General Ortner’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2004, Alex received a grant for fencing, a sport he had enjoyed with his dad. Alex recalls, “In a way, doing fencing while Dad was away helped me maintain our relationship.”
Alex fenced for nine years, eventually competing at the national level in high school. His dad took him to Columbus, Ohio to compete.
Today, Alex attends Virginia Commonwealth University as a theater major. He said, “In eighth grade, I was a reserved little boy who wanted to be an astrophysicist. Erika was doing theater. She encouraged me to audition for a part, and I got the lead.”
Erika remembers becoming interested in theater when her dad was on one of his deployments. She had been “feeling down,” so her mother took her to her first Broadway show. “That experience began my definition of my identity,” she said. “It was sparkly, loud, and wonderful.”
For Alex, it’s sometimes difficult to stay balanced on an ideological kind of tightrope. “I’m very patriotic, and I like military history and strategy,” he said, but in the more liberal environments connected to theater, “I sometimes have to be careful with what I say.”
While Alex sometimes considers joining the military, Erika says it’s not for her. “It takes a special kind of person,” she says, “But I will stand behind them until I take my last breath.”
As military kids, both Erika and Alex claim they have learned quite a lot. “I’ve learned to be prepared for what may come and to deal the cards you’re dealt,” says Erika.
Alex adds, “When I was little, I worried about Dad being gone; but, since he kept returning home, I realized I could get through tough times. Life changes – sometimes its hard – but it’s only in the short term.”
So who are “military kids?”
For author Patrick Conroy, whose dad was a Marine Corps fighter pilot, they’re “brothers and sisters bound by common experience.”
Although Alex and Erika Ortner weren’t required to move every few years, they share many active duty child experiences – such as familiarity with order and discipline, chain of command, warrior requirements, and parental absences. They too are military children who have served their nation in a way few can truly understand.
(Please email comments to JSMcSpadden@ourmilitarykids.org.)