by Janell Hanf
Military homecomings have become a moment to publicize. Sports games are interrupted for a standing ovation and applause while a servicemember and loved ones embrace. The fans are proud as they “Support Our Troops” and feel their heartstrings pulled watching a joyful reunion.
But less attention is paid to what comes before. When was the last time they saw each other? Why are they so joyful now? Because it has been months since that last embrace. The one that was less glorious.
The deployment goodbye.
The last embrace before the separation.
The goodbye before the deployment.
I hate that goodbye. Whether it’s a brief training exercise or an extended deployment, it feels similar. Sending your favorite person off to an important mission. Picking up the pieces of managing life as a single parent, as a working parent. Moving on with life knowing communication is limited. Feeling their absence. Knowing they’re gone. Not knowing exactly when they’ll be home or how they’ll return.
That’s a spouse’s perspective.
But what about a military kid’s perspective?
Before the deployment goodbye…
Our military kiddo missed two days of preschool to attend company change of command ceremonies. Two days in a row: one for dad, then one for mom.
We never planned our careers that way, it just happened that way. There were too many changes in plans, too many unexpected events over the years for that to be intentional.
What we were intentional about was getting the kiddo involved in community activities off-base. We wanted him to make non-military friends to build an identity beyond the military lens. But when both your mom and dad are Marines, certain aspects of military life are inescapable.
Months after the back-to-back change of command ceremonies, dad’s next deployment was imminent. Life was busy. We didn’t know exactly when the final goodbye would be. In the stress and uncertainty, I dreaded the final goodbye.
I contemplated ridiculous questions like, can I really afford to miss a full day of work? Would the administrators at the off-base elementary school consider this an “excused” absence?
Not that it would matter. The sendoff was a critically important event. When the details came through, we got lucky! Dad’s sendoff was on a weekend.
It was a simple gathering. Dad got to work early. He said it would be better for us to drop him off, then leave for a couple of hours. He needed to focus on final pre-departure administrative tasks.
As a fellow Marine company commander, I understood the requirements. The time we waited, if we stayed, wouldn’t be time with dad. So we left the sendoff location. Dad needed to focus on getting accurate counts, ensuring complete and accurate accountability rosters of people, weapons, and gear. All of that administrative cross-checking was necessary to make sure rosters were accurately aligned to the correct transportation. I wasn’t sure how to explain it to the kiddo, but I reassured him we would return to see Daddy and say goodbye soon.
The kiddo and I returned to the parade deck with breakfast burritos. We linked up with dad and had a picnic lunch on the asphalt. We tried to enjoy the last minutes before the final deployment goodbye.
Military life had prepared our family to brace ourselves for the unexpected. We knew to expect change. We knew to plan for timelines to shift or changes to come at the last minute. But this was before even the first whisper of COVID-19. Before we knew a pandemic would change our lives while dad was overseas. The morning of the goodbye, at that moment, we were thankfully unaware of the disruption to come in the months while dad was deployed.
Eventually, it was time for dad to get on the bus. Final embraces and the deployment goodbye. And then, once he stepped on the bus, we waved. We stayed until the buses and baggage truck lined up and drove away.
As a parent, it was difficult to know if our young child understood what was going on. This was already dad’s second deployment of the kiddo’s short lifetime, but he was only a baby during the previous deployment. He didn’t remember it. Did he realize dad was leaving? That he wouldn’t be back for a while?
Answers came soon.
That evening, the kiddo re-enacted the deployment sendoff with his toy busses and trucks. This is daddy, going to the airport for deployment.
The first school day after the goodbye, the kiddo made a masterpiece (to the extent a kindergartener can). When I arrived to pick him up after work, my kindergartener glowed with pride as he showed what he drew that day. His young voice explained, “This is daddy. This is you. This is me. Daddy is gone but he is still part of our family.”
The staff at after-school care told me how he sat down, focused, and took his time to draw the picture. Then carefully and completely, he filled in the entire background with colored pencil.
My eyes filled with tears as he held his work with pride.
I could see this was his way of processing and understanding what he had observed. Yes, he understood dad was going on a deployment to a place where the background and environment might be different. And yes. We were a family still. We would stay close by keeping each other in our thoughts and our hearts.
As a Marine, Mom, and military spouse, it was challenging to say yet another goodbye to my favorite person in the world. But those first days after my husband deployed, it was reassuring to observe the strength, love, and understanding in kiddo so young.
Military kids are a special part of our military families.
At very young ages, military kids endure tremendous upheaval like Permanent Change of Station moves, saying goodbye to friends and caregivers, and deployments saying goodbye to parents. After settling somewhere new, military kids adjust to a new environment and make new friends. After a deployment goodbye, they adjust to the absence of a loved one. Then, it is only a matter of time before the cycle of military life repeats itself.
Every military kid processes these unusual events in different ways. If you’re a parent, grandparent, or caregiver and not sure if your kiddo is understanding what’s going on, give yourself (and them) the grace, space, and time to process and adjust. Be there to listen and support when the time comes that they’re willing to talk or share.
May the memories of reunions bring joy and lighten the stress and sadness of the goodbyes.
Hugs from our military family to yours.