I am once again honored to bring you a guest blog from an amazing military family. They contacted me about photographing their homecoming, and when I heard their story I knew that they were the perfect family for my “pay it forward” free session. They have been through so very much and are not only still standing, but stronger because of it. I am honored that I was able to capture their homecoming through Operation Love (www.oplove.org) and give them a much needed family session. If you haven’t already, make sure you watch this video that tells a little of what they recently went through right before the recent deployment.
And now, in her own words, here’s Leigh with a glimpse into the lives of another strong military family.
“Life as a military family is by no means a separate existence from that of our civilian counterparts—the natural highs and lows of life map our family journey the same as any other. Successes and defeats, wins and losses, great times and troubled times—experiences all families share. The military family, however, travels this journey along a different path, and when both parents are in the military, there is an added layer of complexity to managing the day-to-day operations of a household, especially with no extended family down the street or in the next town. Our children will never know their grandparents like their cousins who live a short drive away from “grandma and papa” or “mamaw and grandfather”, and it is rather unfortunate that for the overwhelming majority of their lives, a 2500 mile trip once a year across the country is the extent of their relationship with them. On good years, they see them twice a year. It is for this reason that we are grateful for some pretty special surrogate grandparents in the local area who willingly assumed the title of “Aunt” and “Uncle” and who have been an integral part of our lives. Forging new relationships with each change in address is part of the package deal we bought into when we signed on the dotted line some 20+ years ago.
As we prepare for a summer reassignment and look forward to a new community and a new group of local friends, we will miss those who we grew close to over the past seven years, “homesteading” in Washington. I used “homesteading” lightly since our time here has been punctuated by several overseas deployments. While they are just part of our job, there is the emotional burden caused by these long-term physical separations of great distance that is simply heart wrenching at times. These ‘business trips’ out of town are measured in months not days. We did not simply miss a parent teacher conference but rather the entire school year; we did not miss single soccer games or baseball games—instead we heard our children talk about their games weekly because we missed the entire season. On the longest trips, we missed the entire annual calendar of important events—every birthday, the first day of school, our anniversary, the World Series, the final soccer game, Christmas morning, and the last day of school. For our family, this happened in triplicate. You try to stay involved in the kid’s lives through phone calls, Skype, and letters home.
The best way I found to be “present” was to head down to the airfield each week and select a book to read, turn on the video camera, and read the book, ignoring the noisy jets and trying to be animated for the camera. In truth, it was sterile, but it was the best I could offer to be “present”. Maybe I did it to assuage my own guilt about leaving my children. It is noteworthy that despite their young ages, missing events was not lost on them, and when I would call, it never got easier to hear their disappointment because I was not available for them. Perhaps it would be easier “the next time”, because in a post 9/11 world, there is often a next time. Absolutely not. My husband will say that multiple deployments in no way inoculate you from the palpable sadness heard across the phone line because you’re not there to console them, read them stories, open presents together, throw the baseball, or play Yahtzee on a Friday night. It is tough. Period.
Beyond the emotional angst of separation, there is another burden of these deployments, and one that is not often discussed openly—the tremendous professional risk associated with these trips. In the vernacular of the military family, professional risk has nothing to do with profit margins, and personal sacrifice can mean the darkest of tragedies. It is hard to explain to people who have not “been there” without them thinking you’re out of your mind. My heart would sink anytime there was an unexpected knock on the door and there were times when the worry for my husband’s safety was momentarily paralyzing. There was nothing worse than not hearing from him for several days and noticing different cars parked on our street or the street perpendicular to ours. Is it a government car? Did I get the Google alert in my email about “Afghanistan attack”? Was he traveling today? In that precise moment when your mind is reeling, it is inconceivable that he is so busy that he simply has not had a moment to come up for air to call or write. Invariably this was the case and a sigh of relief overcomes you when you receive a call from “BLOCKED”. No, there is no desensitization for this with repeated episodes; I often wonder if it actually heightens sensitivity.
The worst part of every deployment is leaving after saying the final goodbye—whether you are the one leaving or the one staying home. On the drive home from the last departure, a cacophony of wailing ensued—not crying, but wailing—before we began to make our way home. I should be used to this because it happens every time. What can you do? The kids have every right to cry—we chose this lifestyle, they did not. They are smart kids and they can do the math—there are three of them and one of us. There are going to be shortcuts and shortchanges along the way, and in ways that their friends simply cannot relate to. Vying for attention suddenly becomes uber-competitive. As the wailing abated on the drive home last May, our 9-year-old son mustered enough self-control to tell me that he was going to be the man of the house. All the stoicism I displayed in the morning was gone in an instant.
The first few weeks are always tough with a new deployment as we establish the new battle rhythm in a vaguely familiar, always dreaded, “geosingle” parent status. Another period of “new normal”. Most nights the kids would crawl into our king sized bed, and I would not protest. This was their way of feeling secure. Before my husband left, we realized that the difference between this deployment and the others was that the kids were old enough to understand the gravity of the circumstances overseas—they understood the professional risk. They watched the news. They asked questions. When I would tell the kids, “I have some news” or “We have to talk”, the first thing out of their mouths was concern for their dad. “Is dad okay?” I learned to preface discussions with, “Dad is fine…”. One more “new normal”.
This deployment covered all but one birthday and all of the major holidays, and halfway into it, I was completely depleted. Thinking of the joy in the eventual reunion was, ironically, overshadowed by the fatigue and exhaustion of being “on” all the time. It was just a matter of getting through the deployment. Hang on for just a little bit longer. Invariably, the ship turns—the excitement and anticipation of redeployment sets in and joy settles over the home once we could identify a specific redeployment date. A few weeks before my husband returned from Afghanistan this past February, the kids and I would hear the song “Happy” on the radio and it became our mantra. We would crazy dance around the kitchen island to this wonderful song or the kids would be very creative with their backseat dancing when it came on when we were in the car.
Around this time, I saw so many powerful pictures of soldiers deploying and redeploying that I wanted to capture that exact moment of seeing our hero return home after nine long months. I was grateful that Shauna was available and simply rolled with the arrival time that turned into a moving target in the final 48 hours. Because of the work she does for OpLove, I do not have to try to remember that night. I take one look at her pictures and remember vividly the details that would become sketchier with time.
Indeed, the emotional departures and subsequent reunions of loved ones felt by any and every family are heightened for military families. Emotions run understandably higher as the metrics of a lengthy separation add up. Long after the wars have slipped away from daily news coverage and talk around the water cooler, the photos that capture those separations and reunions remain. They represent the most raw and vivid moments in a military family’s journey—the low point and high point that mark our way through the years of service. The still photograph that captures a couple departing, with both fully understanding that this is perhaps the last embrace on this earth, is equaled only by the still of a returning father meeting and holding his infant daughter for the first time while clutching his wife and son. Emotional events for any family, but tremendously heightened for us. These pictures become our press clippings—the evidence and reminder that we have faced incredibly difficult days and the treasure of being fortunate enough to experience the tremendous joy of reunion. In these cases, the picture is not worth a thousand words—their worth cannot be measured in volume of the written word. Rather, the moment is captured only by a photograph and by our hearts, for which there is no substitution.”
I was blessed to be able to capture some family photos for Leigh and her clan before they moved across country. After the emotional homecoming ones, it was so nice to be able to take photos of them being a family with all the different personalities that entails.