We’re Military “Brats,” not heroes, champs, little soldiers, or fledglings

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Morning Zen Guest blogger ~ Donna Musil

Can you imagine the outrage if the USO bought thousands of copies of a non-vet’s book about how it feels to be a vet, then paid him to traipse around the world singing songs about a war he never fought, while unilaterally renaming vets “Hero Volunteers” and treating vets with PTSD as if they were defective and just not “resilient” enough?

That’s what’s happening to 15 million Americans who have grown up in military families.

For as long as anyone can remember, these proud citizens have called themselves military “brats,” but recently, a small group of non-brats has been trying to “rebrand” this 200-plus- years culture into “CHAMPS,” or “Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel.” In my opinion, with very few exceptions, those 15 million military brats are not happy with this rebranding effort.

To the non-military-connected, the word brat may have negative connotations, but to the military child, it has just the right amount of spunk necessary to make it through the next move, the next deployment, or the next sacrifice for the Military Mission. When these children leave the military, by way of graduation or their parent’s retirement, there are hundreds of brat alumni organizations, websites, blogs, and Facebook pages through which they can keep in contact with all the friends, teachers, coaches, and dreams they had to abandon over the years in the name of duty, honor, and country. It’s their one “root.” Now, Debbie and Jennifer Fink and their “Operation CHAMPS” initiative are trying to take that root away.

No one really knows where the term brat originated. British military children were called both “British Regiment Attached Travelers” and “barrack rats,” which could’ve been shortened to brats. Poets referred to military children as brats as far back as 1707. Some think it just means “a child.” Others have come up with creative acronyms like “Bold Responsible Adaptable Tolerant.” Wherever it originated, it stuck, and millions of people who grew up in military families (from America, Britain, Canada, Australia, etc.) call themselves brats. 

On November 24th, the Finks issued a statement denying attempts to “reject or denigrate the term BRATS,” but a multitude of interviews and publicity materials say otherwise. In a 2012 USO article by Joseph Lee, Debbie Fink said, “We declared our independence 236 years ago and it’s about time our Little C.H.A.M.P.S did the same.”

Why would anyone try to disenfranchise a proud culture to which they don’t even belong? The Finks claim a goal of their “public health and education initiative” is to help civilian children “understand” military children. They have managed to convince some heavy-hitters behind their efforts, from the USO to the Red Cross to First Lady Michelle Obama. The USO sent the Finks on a world-wide book tour to military base schools in Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, there are few civilian students attending those schools who need to be enlightened by the Finks. This oversight is not surprising, since neither the Finks, nor most individuals leading current military child organizations, grew up military.

Here’s how it seems to work. The Finks wrote a $10 children’s book, The Little C.H.A.M.P.S,” and sell an accompanying $399 “CHAMPKit.” Their for-profit company, Harmony Hearth, LLC, owns all the rights to the book and kit, and is trademarking “CHAMPS.” The Finks solicit donors to buy the books to “give away” through the non-profit. I can only assume the non-profit buys the books from the for-profit. We’re not talking about a couple hundred books. We’re talking thousands of books. 

The Finks say they donate the “profits” from their for-profit book sales to the non-profit. So  why didn’t they just publish the book through the non-profit? Only the Finks know, because the public can’t see their for-profit salaries or expenses. Perhaps they received advice from the book’s illustrator, Walter Blackwell, who resigned in 2008 as CEO/President of the National Veterans Business Development Corporation after a Senate inquiry. According to a 2008 New York Times article by Elizabeth Olson, “A Nonprofit for Veterans Is Faulted On Spending,” the Senate reported that the money spent on helping veterans start and expand new businesses was dwindling, while its executives spent thousands of federal dollars on “expensive dinners, luxury hotels, first-class travel and high salaries.” 

There always have been, and there always will be, individuals and organizations that try to profit from the military and military families. Some of them provide real services in return and some don’t. In my opinion – as a proud Army brat who moved twelve times across three continents, went to eleven schools in thirteen years, watched my father go to war (then die eight years later when I was in high school), and as an adult brat who has spent the last 15 years trying to raise awareness of the culture, contributions, and challenges of military brats – the Fink’s “Little C.H.A.M.P.S” initiative does not.

Some choose to believe the Finks are well-intentioned. All I know for sure is that I spoke with Debbie Fink in 2011 before she finished her book. She told me she was originally going to  entitle it, “The Little Brats,” but the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) told her they wouldn’t endorse any book with “brat” in the title. I explained what the word meant to our culture. I shared with her our own initiatives, including our cultural competency workshops, traveling art exhibit, and BRATS Clubs for military children attending civilian schools. I sent her a copy of the documentary, BRATS: Our Journey Home (which is owned by the non-profit, Brats

Without Borders) and she promised to send me a working draft of her book. I never received it. A year later, The Little C.H.A.M.P.S was published and the Operation CHAMPS initiative was launched offering the book and free babysitting for military families by college students. In the past week, MCEC has officially withdrawn support for the “Little CHAMPS” program.

Make no mistake – this is not just about a word. In my opinion, “rebranding” military brats to “CHAMPS” marginalizes and disenfranchises millions of Americans of all ages, races, and walks of life, in order to sell a product. Meanwhile, dozens of small groups and non-profits run by and for brats with programs and materials based on real research and actual experiences, are ignored – organizations like Brats Without Borders, the Military Brat Registry, the Military Kid Art Project, Books for Brats, the Museum of the American Military Family, Overseas Brats, the BRATpin, Operation Footlocker, Brightwell Publishing, Military Brats Online, United Children of Veterans, the American Overseas Schools Historical Society, and more. Some of these organizations have been around for three decades, quietly helping their fellow brats, young and old, while the well-intentioned USO sends interlopers like the Finks on world tours and thinks they have done something special to help military children. They haven’t. Because at the end of the day, military children still don’t have “anyone who understands them,” because they have been alienated by groups like the Finks from the only ones who do – their fellow brats.

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donnamusilDonna Musil is the Executive Director of Brats Without Borders, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit founded in 1999 to provide educational outreach, support, materials, and research to enrich the lives of Military “Brats” and “Third Culture Kids” of all ages. She is also the Writer-Director of BRATS: Our Journey Home, the first documentary about “growing up military,” as well as a non-practicing attorney, with an ABJ in Journalism and a JD from the University of Georgia. For more information about Brats Without Borders, see www.USAbrat.org.

For more information about Brats Without Border Projects & Programs, see www.bratsourjourneyhome.com/BWBPrograms.pdf.


  1. Donna Musil's avatar
    Donna Musil
    | Permalink
    If "Steve" had bothered to do his homework and looked more closely at our Form 990s, he would have seen that the $50,000 salary has always been deferred. I have run this nonprofit since 1998. He could've found all the work we do at www.USAbrat.org - including documentary films about the Military Brat subculture, traveling art exhibits, after-school clubs for military kids, summer art camps for military kids, educational workshops for teachers, parents, transitioning teens, etc. These programs are made possible mostly by adult brats volunteering their time and efforts, supplemented by small donations (also usually from adult brats).

    We do not own (nor have we tried to trademark) the word "brat," any more than any nonprofit that helps veterans and has the word "veteran" in their title.

    Every penny of every donation that BWB has received since 1998 has been spent on the above programs. Not one dime has paid for my salary. Any salary I have received over the past 17 years has been from sales of our documentary, "BRATS: Our Journey Home." From 1999 to 2004, I received no salary. Once we released the BRATS film, I was reimbursed for expenses accumulated over the previous years (every penny of which is documented and accounted for). To date, I have been paid approximately $4.50 an hour for the work I've done on behalf of military brats of all ages. Again, every penny has been paid by sales of the BRATS film, not donations.

    I'm sorry Steve hasn't been exposed to any of our work while he's been stationed overseas "for years." But just because he hasn't seen those programs, doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, the U.S. Army Chaplain's office sponsored a number of our workshops in Germany and Italy, and AFN has shown the BRATS film - gratis - many times. Most of our work, however, is done in the United States, with brats who are no longer in the military, with young brats attending civilian schools, and with various Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Programs, museums, and the like.

    I'm happy to compare our record to any military-connected nonprofit's out there. I suggest that, in the future, "Steve" do his homework before making accusations and discussing issues about which he knows little about.

    Kind regards,
    Donna Musil, Executive Director
    Brats Without Borders, Inc.
  2. Steve's avatar
    | Permalink
    I'm having a hard time seeing how this lady (Donna Musil) is enriching herself and capitalizing any less on military families with the buzzword "BRAT" being the producer of a documentary film, the Executive Director of "BRATS Without Borders" a nonprofit for which she enriches herself with $50,000 of donor dollars annually???!!!

    Check the 990s people. She pays herself more than she puts into any outreach or support for military brats. She's only attacking the Finks and the USO because she's threatened by a potential re-branding. It's pathetic and we see right through you lady. Get a life.

    I met the Finks while they were on tour with the USO and their mission seemed pretty genuine to me. I've been stationed overseas for years and I've never seen, heard or felt any contribution to my community from "Brats without Borders" whatever that is.

    It's a tax shelter. Plain and simple.

  3. Laura's avatar
    | Permalink
    I am a military brat and am quite offended that they are trying to take away my identity for a couple of civilians to profit from. I say shame on you uso for paying them to spread their little champs message. You should know better.
  4. Elaine Slaton's avatar
    Elaine Slaton
    | Permalink
    This is a must read for every single entity interested in children's mental health!
    Donna Musil, once again - you have nailed it! Thank you for you incredible voice.
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