As a Marine family, the kids and I have said “see you later” and then “hello” again to my husband many times. When he was scheduled to return from combat, civilian friends and family offered to join the celebration and stage a surprise reunion between my kids and my husband. I put my foot down: You may not join in on our reunion and there will be no surprise. I was the poster child of party poopers to everyone – except my husband and children.
Military friends of mine raised the question of whether surprise military reunions are a good idea; and because the question was raised on Facebook, several civilian friends joined the discussion. Military surprise reunions are a bad idea – and I would challenge those who think differently to read on and then tell me why they still think they’re a good thing.
There have always been surprise reunions, but since the first deployment following 9-11, it’s been too often regarded as an entitlement of civilians who simply can’t be there for the other 99 percent of military life. I have two spurs in my side about surprise reunions. One is the military spouse who thinks surprises are a good idea and the other is the civilian who thinks surprises are good TV.
The discussions I’ve had with civilians about this have led me to conclude there’s no talking to many non-military-affiliated people about it. At the risk of generalizing – oh hell, I’ll just generalize and deal with the consequences: Most civilians genuinely and sincerely want to share and assist in the military experience of deployment every bit as much as military families are there for each other. But civilians can’t be there.
Most send-offs occur on military installations, so rarely does the civilian world have access. It’s no coincidence that the good-bye isn’t a meme or a reality TV show because there’s no conclusion, no closure, and no moment that segues well into commercial. Many civilians are not familiar with the concept of delaying marital or parental gratification for 6-18 months within a framework that might well involve life-changing injury or death. Since it’s damned difficult to cram the experience of an entire deployment into a 30-second .gif or even a three-minute video, civilians prefer to experience their military myopically and in a more palatable way: the reunion.
But let’s talk about the in-between for a moment, when TV cameras are shuttered and civilians are content to put the military out of their minds. Every spouse whose service member is deployed has a routine – a precious, highly-guarded jewel of family stability that has evolved over years through multiple cities, countries, houses, schools, jobs, friendships and separations. The details that give a military family its stability are boring, repetitive tidbits that don’t make good TV for civilians (which is why that travesty called Army Wives exists as a script).
Civilians don’t have access to the facilities we use – from the fitness center where we work off our fears and the housing units where we make our homes to the Family Service Centers where we job hunt, learn new things, and express our anxieties to the commissary where we buy both healthy and indulgent foods. The reunion, however, is prime feeding ground for civilians who want so much to be a part of it all. And the surprise reunion – often taking place in public where everyone has access – is the pig’s trough from which many civilians not only stuff their faces, but where, because they weren’t there for the other 99 percent of it, they believe they are owed a position. It’s selfish and thoughtless of anyone to think they have any right to waltz in at the end and glad-hand at a buffet they didn’t earn. The military spouses and/or service members who indulge civilians in this way are no better, especially when the civilians are strangers to the service member and/or military child.
It is incredibly insensitive for any military spouse and service member to put their own wants and the wants of civilians ahead of the needs of their children. There’s no definitive way for a parent to know how a given child will react. Otherwise stable children have been known to lose it completely when surprised with a returned parent, which viewers eat up faster than chocolates on sample day. Then there are the troubled and trouble-making children, many of whom have been known to internalize the whole thing. To the rest of the world, these children look apathetic and are judged accordingly – and that’s not fair.
A surprise reunion is considered good TV when it goes “well” – which is to say there is shock, awe, tears, and a grip so tight you can all but see the overwhelming relief, sadness, and joy showering the floor beneath the participants. That is a private moment so filled with overwhelming vulnerability that those who are not involved and yet dare to gaze should feel embarrassed and ashamed to think they ever had the right to share in it.
And if I may, consider the surprise reunion from the perspective of a schoolteacher and the other kids in the classroom where many reunions are staged. My kids attended DoDEA schools from first grade through high school. In 2003, almost every kid attending school on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune had a parent in Iraq or Afghanistan. Can you imagine how disruptive it would have been if all those kids had been “surprised”? And all of them wouldn’t have been, because some got another surprise: Their parent came home in a box or in traction or was still hospitalized in a psychiatric ward or burn unit. No one considers these kids, the children whose parents didn’t come home all TV-ready but still have to endure some other kid’s happy reunion. Imagine yourself in that kid’s shoes. Does it get any shittier than that? Yes, it does – because some of those kids have to watch the reunions of others more than once.
Equally important is the returning spouse’s mindset – the deployed spouse who is surprised rather than cast as part of the surprise. There are no two things more polarized than the experience of combat and the experience of celebration. A quiet, unassuming reunion with their loved ones is what they think they’re going to get, but instead they’re greeted by flashing cameras and people they don’t know. Fantastic. How many videos do you suppose never made it to YouTube or prime time because the returning spouse flew off the handle or a surprised child spiraled into an emotional meltdown? Since I personally know there are at least a dozen such videos, I’m guessing there are really thousands.
To make matters worse, a lot of the “successful” videos have been archived in the permanent collection that is the Internet with no regard for the feelings of the surprised service member who just wanted to come home or the military child who is now older and will forever be reminded of that time he cried, she fell down, he just stood there or she wet her pants. And the only reason these videos ever existed is that someone had the unrealistic expectation that the returning service member and/or military child would react in a TV-ready way. It’s unsupportive, disloyal and unloving on the part of one spouse to do this to the other or a parent to a child.
I know everyone has the right to do what they do, whether they’re the civilian watching or the military family setting the whole thing up. I get it. And kudos to everyone whose surprise reunion goes off without a hitch. That still doesn’t make it right. And the fact that so many of these surprise reunion videos are made even though so many of them don’t go well tells me there are a lot of people with a very unhealthy addiction to drama, even, and especially, when it comes at the expense of the very people they claim to love.