By Senior Airman Brandon Valle and Capt. Jose R. Davis , Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
/ Published April 27, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala -- There are about four million children of military members around the world.
Many military children face challenges their parents never faced. They may attend nine different schools from kindergarten through 12th grade; or face multiple deployments of a parent; or have to make new friends on the move as quickly as they say goodbye to old ones. Military children learn to be resilient, constantly adapting to new environments as they grow up.
Thirteen year-old Emma Brittingham, daughter of Lt. Col. Jake Brittingham, 23rd Flying Training Squadron director of operations, has spent her whole life as a military child. She has moved seven times to five states and even to another country.
“I like having friends from all over,” Emma said. “No matter where I go, I always get to visit someone!”
Emma has not let her status of a military child slow her down as she excels in doing what she loves: competing in gymnastics.
"I enjoy gymnastics because it gives me a challenge,” Emma said. “Every day I walk into the gym, I can always expect something new and exciting. Gymnastics helps me appreciate more because sometimes I have a bad day at the gym and that is discouraging. But, that helps me appreciate the good days even more because when they are good, they are good!”
Emma began her gymnastics training in 2010 near Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and continued practicing while the family was stationed in Monterey, California. Her first hurdle came when the family received orders to Germany.
“When we moved to Germany, we learned there was no American gymnastics for her to participate in,” Jake Brittingham said. “We found a gym where most of the coaches spoke English and decided to give it a try.”
Though the coaches spoke English, the gymnasts only spoke German, he said.
Instead of letting the language barrier become an issue, the family decided to enroll Emma into a school off-base, where she learned to speak German.
“It was really cool living in Germany and getting the experience there,” Emma said. “Not many people get the experience of learning a new language in the country.”
As she continued training, Emma competed in meets, and was able to experience what some only dream of.
“Being able to get the training and experience of competing internationally was really cool,” Emma said.
She experienced international competitions and earned the top spot on the German gymnastics team.
Emma’s excitement and passion for gymnastics is shared by her entire family and every time they arrive at a new location it’s one of their top concerns.
“It's the first thing we do when we land in a new city, we find a gym,” said Kelley Brittingham, Emma’s mother. “We work as a family to find a place that fits our criteria and go from there.”
Emma is now home-schooled because she spends so much time in the gym training. But, for the family, finding a place to train has a dual purpose: to help Emma continue her passion, and to help the family adapt to the new locations.
“The gym is a way for us to integrate with other families when we move to new places,” Jake Brittingham said. “We continue to use gymnastics gyms as a way to come together as a family.”
After competing in Germany, Emma’s father got stationed at F.E. Warren AFB in 2015, moving Emma’s family to Wyoming. Emma won the Wyoming State Gymnastics Championship, becoming the best gymnast in the state.
At the end of the season, duty called again, and Emma would find herself once again moving quickly to a new place. In July 2016, the Brittingham family moved to Fort Rucker, Ala. Not only did a daunting move weigh on her mind, but like any young 13-year old girl, she felt the anxiety of meeting new girls her age and training in a large gym.
“It was nerve-racking,” Emma recollected. “It was really hard because it was my first big gym. I didn’t know how practices worked.”
But that didn’t stop Emma from making new friends and being the best she could be.
“In the end, everyone was nice and just like my other gyms; we were a family,” Emma said.
In 2017, as a level-eight Junior Olympic gymnast, she competed in a number of regional competitions from Columbus, Ohio, to Orlando, Fla. She finished either first or second place in those competitions.
Emma also became the Alabama State Level 8 All-Around champion – a “by qualification only” competition March 18, 2017. Emma competed in all the gymnastics events offered, finishing first place on the vault and uneven bars as well as the all-around category.
With the highest Level 8 all-around score in the state, Emma led the state team at a regionals competition, April 22, 2017. The competition pitted the gymnasts in her category from eight different states against one another. At the most competitive meet of her gymnastics career, Emma medaled on all five events. She’s now ranked in the top 25 in the nation as a level-eight junior olympic gymnast.
“Every place I’ve been I’ve learned something new with gymnastics and with life,” Emma reflected. “You have to be positive in a sport like this or you end up quitting. It’s hard to be positive with all the moving, but each time I get to a new gym, I get to learn new lessons inside and outside of the gym, which helps me regain any positivity I lost.”
Military children are resilient, sacrificing and serving in their own way. In most cases, they are born into the military family and it’s expected they will just pick up and move every one to four years with no issues. With few exceptions, they are not part of the equation when the “needs of the Air Force” are in play. But with a strong and supportive family, like Emma’s, and a passion for something personally important, military children can have unique experiences that help them succeed and flourish in their own ways.
For Emma, now that her competition season is officially over, she will continue training, learning to balance the rigors of high school academics with her practice schedule, as she begins ninth grade in the fall. Emma plans to continue her gymnastics career, dreaming one day to be recruited for a college scholarship.