As a military family, there is no moment quite like homecoming – anticipation, relief, anxiety – but without fail it is not as simple as the heart wrenching viral videos might lead you to believe.
As soon as I pull myself out of the wallowing that happens immediately after my soldier leaves for down range, the count down to homecoming starts. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with homecomings. I *love* photographing homecomings. I cry every time my camera captures that moment they find each other. There is nothing quite so moving as when young kids realize Dad or Mom is home. A soldier meeting his child for the first time will literally bring you to your knees – it is a breathtakingly emotional moment amid the chaos of reunion.
When I’m the one on waiting for him to come off the plane, the emotions are a little more complicated.
With more than 10 years together during a decade plus of war, this isn’t our first deployment rodeo. Our first deployment was with a Special Forces unit. He arrived home a week earlier than he told me to expect him. He was trying to surprise me but when he called to figure out where I was it showed as a local number and I figured it out. That homecoming happened with me *literally* coming straight from the barn – breeches, boots, sweat and all – and picking him up in front of the Group HQs. We muddled through reintegration, the awkwardness being outweighed by our excitement in being together. For him, that first reintegration was full of relief at having come home “whole” and guilt that not everyone else had. There was very little conversation about it until a few months later when he was consistently drunk in order to be able to sleep. Slowly, we got a handle on it.
A few TDYs and exactly one year later, he told me that he had volunteered to deploy again with a unit that short staffed. He would be leaving in less than 30 days and he wanted to get married – so that I would be “taken care of” if the worst happened. Now, we make jokes that he arranged it that way because he was convinced that his commit-phobic girlfriend (me) would get scared during a long engagement and play runaway bride. It’s true that I wasn’t real keen on the marriage idea. So a year later we weren’t just dealing with reintegration but also normal newlywed adjustment. In addition, he survived an IED with a traumatic brain injury and was not being treated for the after effects despite still experiencing post-concussive symptoms 6 months later. I’ll be brief and say that reintegration was not smooth, or terribly happy. It took years.
Between then and now, we’ve had several separations – several thanks to another stint with a Special Forces Group while we had a newborn. As excited as I am to have him home, experience has me bracing for the post-Homecoming impact.
It’s Different This Time
There will be a few differences during our next homecoming. Aside from the fact that we’re older and more aware of the speed bumps, our son is now 5 and much more aware of things than he has been in the past – even a year ago. Perhaps most significantly the deployment is only the most recent in a string of separations over the 18 months we’ve been assigned to Fort Hood. In those 18 months, he’s been gone for more than a year with his time at home scattered in chunks of less than 5 weeks at a time.
He still doesn’t know where most things are in our house or where our property manager’s office is. He couldn’t tell you what our monthly bills are off the top of his head. Two years in a row, he’s missed fall soccer, school functions, Halloween, Thanksgiving. He also missed both my and little man’s birthdays. He missed two family vacations. He doesn’t know our routine here.
It’s different and the same. Every homecoming has its own challenges.
I think that my greatest challenge this time around is that I am bracing for issues that haven’t appeared yet. His airplane isn’t even wheels up in Afghanistan and I’m already trying to manage expectations. I have to remind myself that it’s okay to suggest what parts of our routine should stay in place (because my munchkin is a routine kid). And I have to let go of the ability to completely control our schedule based on my own preferences which is the one part of deployment that I thoroughly enjoy.
Learning Through Experience
As we’ve lived and learned through military life, I’ve had the good fortune to have wonderful military spouse mentors and I’ve tried to return the favor. I know that I have to be careful when it comes to homecomings and reintegrations. Struggling through reintegration while also dealing with TBI issues made our experience harder than it needed to be. It’s been a long road to open up communication and feel heard. There are times that I wish I could go back to that young wife who convinced a professor to move a final to an earlier time so that she’d have time to get her hair done (yes, I did that). This time, I have a system that includes grocery shopping, cleaning the house and cars, and pulling the winter clothes he hasn’t been around to use out of the closet. Instead of shopping for homecoming outfits, I’m trying not to worry about stressing over Christmas presents. I keep reminding myself that its okay to tap into that excitement and let myself be caught up in the relief of having him home safe.
Did you worry about homecoming?