By Karen M. Sayko
Growing up as an Air Force “brat” shaped the Karen Sayko of 2023. Service members make sacrifices for our country, but the spouses and children are impacted by that service, also. When I see a person wearing a military uniform I think of my father, a thirty-year veteran and my mother, who served in the British ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) as an ambulance driver during World War II.
Shy as a child, I didn’t have many close friends because I knew we would be moving in about three years. Including a short time being home-schooled in Germany, I attended seven schools between entering school in England and graduating 8th Grade in Germany. These interruptions didn’t hamper my learning; they enhanced it.
Our teachers in Germany were of the highest caliber; happy to be teaching and thrilled at the opportunity to see the world courtesy of Uncle Sam.
Fellow military brats came from across the United States and even Puerto Rico. I made friends with children of different backgrounds, races, religions and nationalities.
My American father and British-born mother met during the war at a dance at my father’s airfield (Horham-95th Bomb Group). Because they were older than the average American/English couple (my Dad was thirty and my mom was twenty-nine when they married), they had each traveled and met people from other countries and cultures. They were not prejudiced nor did they divide people into ”them and us”. This trait still serves me well.
While living in downtown Trier, Germany, before the military housing area was built, my sister and I played “Cowboys and Indians” with neighboring German friends. My most memorable Christmas was the one we shared with a German family. Despite a language barrier, we were able to sing carols and enjoyed traditional food. They even had tiny candles on the Christmas tree, instead of electric lights.
We traveled extensively in Germany. We also visited nearby countries, such as Switzerland, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. For two years, we lived close to the Luxembourg border, so we made frequent trips to that country, including marking Memorial Days at the American cemetery there. Traveling like this broadened my horizons and stimulated my interest in history.
Being a military brat made me adaptable, resilient and self-reliant. The summer after my freshman year of college, when I was just eighteen, I traveled by myself to New York City to work at the World’s Fair. These qualities were invaluable later in life when I went through some challenging times.
One of the experiences we missed traveling around was being close to our grandparents and extended family, but we kept in touch with letters (no email or video chats then) and long distance phone calls through numerous time zones. The summer after we came back from Germany we had an impromptu family reunion in St. Charles, Missouri, my dad’s hometown, with relatives coming from as far away as Boston.
In the military, it’s a small world. The paths of families often cross. Our neighbors in Florida were transferred to France at the same time we went to Germany so we saw each other a number of times. Back in the states, I was riding my bicycle around the housing area one afternoon and spotted a boy I had gone to school with in Germany.
We were a close-knit family. My parents, married forty-five years before my mother passed away, managed separations when my dad had to report to duty stations months before we could join him. My mother devoted herself to raising myself and my sister, often on her own, while supporting my father as he advanced in his career.
When I was away at college and my father was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he couldn’t take the family with him, we exchanged lengthy letters. I shared my problems and he would write back with wise advice that only a loving and thoughtful father can give.
Looking back on my life I marvel at the upbringing I enjoyed. I loved being an Air Force “brat” and wouldn’t trade the experience for all the tea from India and Kenya put together and I grew up drinking tea!