When I tried to figure out what takes place at a homecoming, I found only lists of instructions on what to wear and what not to wear; how to welcome your sailor home; how to behave during and after the ceremony; and what to expect of your returning service member. You are supposed to look pretty but not slutty. You should have a clean house and your service member’s favorite foods waiting for him. You should expect him to be stressed and not burden him with your worries. Oh, and he may return a different person than the one who left. A lot to take in! I wonder, are service members asked to prepare for the possibility that the families they left behind may have changed in their absences?
To demystify the experience of homecoming, I thought I would share my story. In short, I was struck by a few things:
How commercialized homecoming is, from the money families are expected to pay to have first dibs at seeing their loved ones, to the advertising opportunities afforded groups who donate refreshments and care packages
How controlled it is. There are many physical barriers between families and service members, and tightly choreographed ceremonies, despite media portrayals of homecomings as spontaneous expressions of love and pride
Despite what a maddening pain in the ass it was to attend an event in the middle of my workday with little advance warning, how glad I was that I attended, both to be among other women and to support Sam.
How no homecoming rituals celebrate friendships between and contributions of women and men left behind during deployments.
Sam’s homecoming was on a hot early autumn day. A few days beforehand, service members’ families received an e-mail announcing the day and time when the boat would return. I got permission to work remotely to be near the base. I wondered what it would cost the military to give families at least two weeks of advance notice as to the date and time of a ship’s arrival, so that they can arrange to complete work projects and travel.
For weeks beforehand, I had been torn about the whole notion of homecoming and what it would mean to celebrate the return of a boat whose function is to prepare for war. I struggled with whether to go at all. I wanted to be there for Sam but I did not want to be perceived as a visible part of the military effort. My friends urged me to follow my heart. My heart was pulling me in different directions.
The advice of my friend Renee, another officer’s wife, did it for me: you have to go, she said. Go for Sam but also go for the rest of us. We'll be there.
The day of, I was overwhelmed with a work project. So I headed over to the base with my laptop and a foldout chair. When I arrived, a group of families had already assembled. They milled between a tent where Starbucks was serving free coffee and cookies, its logo displayed prominently on the front of a large tent, and the pier, which was bordered by both a chain link fence and beyond that, a four-foot concrete barrier behind which families stood.
People held banners that read, “Welcome home, U.S.S Submarine!” and “THANK YOU.” I saw one woman with a pin with a photo of her uniformed husband fastened to her dress, and her two young daughters wore the same.
Finally, the submarine inched its way into the pier to cheering. Then, more waiting. Iced coffee, milling around. I answered emails, edited my report. I didn’t know where to put my attention: to the fence, behind which I could see sailors walking on top of the newly docked boat, as if oblivious to the crowd waiting for them, or my iPhone, buzzing away with emails. I finally gave up on work and found Renee and some of the other women.
We waited an hour and a half from when the time the boat was supposed to come in until we actually saw the men emerge. Before that, I observed a strange ritual.
(First, some background: while the boat was still deployed, a group of spouses from the boat’s Family Readiness Group sold “first kiss tickets,” a lottery that determines who among the families are able to come forth first and be reunited with their sailors. The proceeds benefit the Family Readiness Group, so that in the future they can plan more first kiss ceremonies.)
Now the chosen ones stood by the boat, behind the concrete wall, behind the fence, and were allowed to hug their husbands as we villagers looked on.
I always thought that public photos of military families being reunited were taken amidst the chaos of many families coming together, no preference shown to some families and no strings attached. Watching families embrace, being closely watched, behind many artificial barriers, I wondered how you could not have the generic happy embrace that everyone expects you to have. No wonder the reunion photos we see on the web look so similar to one another, when in reality, a host of different scenes took place when couples were allowed to reunite with one another in one messy crowd: pecks on the cheek, awkward hugs, tearful reunions, handshakes among men, indeed, in our post Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell days, kisses among male partners, and in most cases, as with Sam and I, quiet reunions as we contemplated where to begin after so much time apart.
More waiting. Another officer’s wife came up to me and told me she had been reading my blog, and that it resonated with her. If such a thing is possible, her words retroactively eased my loneliness of the previous six months. Another woman was on the other end of the line feeling some of the same things! Even if Sam hadn’t shown up that day, that small exchange would have made homecoming worthwhile. Renee watched this interaction a few feet away, and winked at me. Her look seemed to say: I told you. You were less alone than you assumed.
Finally, anticlimactically, Sam and the other sailors began to emerge from the chain link fence. My friend Renee pointed to him before I spotted him. “There’s Sam! Go to him!” she said, nudging me forward. I heard one of the women next to me say that she felt nauseous. I thought I understood what she meant: there had been a lot of buildup and unnecessary ceremony for an event many of us felt ambivalent about. We wanted to see our loved ones, but how to express to them what the experience had been like for us?
I was wearing a tiny sundress, and I momentarily contemplated how I would jump the concrete barrier without exposing myself. I shrugged and hurdled myself over and walked towards Sam.
Neither Sam nor I are happiest in a group, so he gently steered me to the side of the crowd where we would be less subject to photographs and the public. No less than three times, individuals wearing uniforms from a local chain store approached us offering free “care packages” of household cleaning supplies in buckets emblazoned with the company’s name. Sam thanked each of them and told them we weren’t interested.
At the end of the event, I left on my own while Sam spent several more hours on the boat. I turned to Renee, whom I had become close friends with over the course of the past few months, and we hugged goodbye, as she would soon be moving away. It hit me that this was more than just a reunion with our partners. It was the end of an intense period of inter-reliance on one another. Many of our friendships would remain, but the sense of camaraderie we felt enduring something difficult together would not. I felt a pang of sadness.
Note to self for next time: Don’t just plan for Sam’s homecoming, which I had done by baking him cookies and getting the house clean, because one-sided homecoming or not, we both celebrate our reunions at home. Do something for those who have helped you through it. Bake cookies for them. Write notes of appreciation for them. Celebrate their friendship. If anything is humane and sustaining about deployment, it is relationships among people left behind.