As the spouse of a vet who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, I’m not a fan of surprise deployment reunions, and I’m especially not a fan of surprise reunions that are filmed for public consumption.
A lot of great conversations are happening on social media right now as a result of the surprise reunion at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. Military spouses are speaking out on Facebook and Twitter and blog posts about their personal experiences with deployment reunions, which can be awkward and uncomfortable and stressful even when they’re not a surprise and / or being filmed on national TV. Just this morning The Washington Post published an article by Alex Horton on this very topic, quoting military spouse Rebekah Sanderlin, whose funny, sad, intimate, and powerful tweets on military reunions have so far received thousands of likes and hundreds of retweets.
As the spouse of a vet who served 29 years in the Marine Corps, and as a writer who’s been closely following issues related to military family life for more than a decade now, I’m happy to see this conversation taking place and gaining traction among the general public. And while I’m not a fan of surprise deployment reunions—and I’m especially not a fan of surprise reunions that are filmed for public consumption—I see only good things coming from the current conversation that’s happening as result of a nationally televised military reunion viewed by millions of Americans. It’s an excellent opportunity to draw the curtain and invite non-military families to learn more about what it’s like to love someone who happens to be in the military.
Surprise reunions are hard on military kids, especially younger ones. During a deployment, according to another Washington Post article by Tara Swords, military kids live in a constant state of heightened anxiety and experience a higher rate of emotional problems compared to their friends from non-military families. Explains child psychologist and retired Army general Stephen Xenakis (as quoted in the above WP article), even if their deployed parent is serving at a relatively safe forward operating base—in a non-combat-capacity—that distinction is difficult for younger kids to grasp. They do grasp that something terrible could happen to their deployed parent. Surprising already anxious kids in front of television cameras—even for a positive moment such as a reunion—only adds to their anxiety.
Surprise reunion videos sugarcoat and romanticize military life. They give the false impression that life magically returns to normal the moment the service member comes home. Yes, reunions are incredibly joyful, but they are also incredibly stressful, even for the adults.
While many veterans and military families adjust pretty well after a deployment, the reality for the military population at large is often darker and scarier than most people realize. Even I was caught off guard by the months-long struggles that ensued after my husband’s last deployment to Iraq in 2008, and he’d been in the military 26 years at that point.
Reunion videos gloss over the fact that once a deployed service member returns, in many cases their challenges are only just beginning. Deployments change people—both the service members and their families. Sometimes these changes are positive, but oftentimes they are not. Military families face higher divorce rates. Many veterans encounter unemployment, homelessness, and mental health issues including suicide (not to mention other serious health challenges as a result of physical injuries, including lost limbs and traumatic brain injury).
I don’t judge military families who like surprise reunions. I don’t judge people who like surprise reunion videos—they make me cry too. I would like to see more education and support for military families and veterans—not only during deployments & homecomings, but after the dust has settled, when service members and the people who love them are struggling to put their lives back together. If you’re interested in learning more about how to support veterans and military families, here are just a few of my favorite charitable organizations with military-related missions: Blue Star Families, Team Rubicon, Semper Fi Fund, Heart of America Stand-down.
On a final note, as Horton makes clear in his Washington Post article, let’s remember and honor the Gold Star Families who’d give anything to see their service member come home, no matter the circumstances.
(These photos were taken in 2008 at the end of my husband’s 2-week leave, midway through his 13-month deployment to Iraq. We were standing in front of our house at zero dark-thirty getting ready to make the dreaded trip back to the airport)