Rebekah Sanderlin used the opportunity to take a nap. That deployment had been particularly hard. Her father had died, she had a lymphoma scare and her husband left when she was pregnant with their second child. She gave birth during a hurricane.
Rudy was already 5 months old in February 2009, sleeping with her brother and her mother in the car, when a man tapped on the truck’s window at 2 a.m. Sanderlin jolted awake. There he was, in the flesh, back at Fort Bragg.
“That’s how he met our daughter,” she said.
That reunion bore little resemblance to Tuesday night, when President Trump surprised one of his guests, Army spouse Amy Williams, with the news that her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams, was home from Afghanistan.
The moment, a gut punch engineered to strike emotional chords of duty, sacrifice and love, was remarkable and familiar all at once: the stoic military spouse, tested but unbowed by her husband’s deployment, suddenly drops her worries when a uniformed man enters to embrace his family.
Through reality TV and insurance commercials, it’s often what most of the country sees when it sees military families shouldering the longest war in U.S. history.
But it is also a tiny moment that obscures the mosaic of chaos, relief, confusion and anger that often accompanies deployments and homecomings, said Sanderlin, 43.
“Coming home is a good moment. You’re happy it’s over,” she told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “But it’s not a pretty moment. It’s awkward. It feels like it’s an arranged marriage. It’s been so long, and so much has happened, and you both changed so much.”
“But I think it’s an easy out,” she said. “I wish people would think as much about the families ripped apart as much as they enjoy seeing them brought back together.”
Deployments are traumatic and confusing for children and families, but public reunions may fuel the problem. Some clinicians warn that adults may project their own feelings onto children with no ability to regulate their emotions.
“I would, from a policy standpoint and as a senior Army doctor, say that I would discourage families, and I would discourage the Army, from in any way agreeing to this kind of filming and programming,” Stephen Xenakis, a Washington child and adolescent psychiatrist who is also a retired Army brigadier general, told The Post in 2011.
For military families, the complexities begin even before the service member gets on the plane, Sanderlin said.
Sanderlin’s husband, whom she declined to name because he is a Special Forces soldier, has deployed or left for assignments 20 times since they were married, she said. So she created ways to subtly remove his presence before he leaves, she said, like taking over breakfast-making duties. That can help cushion her three children from a sudden change.
But the approaching moment can be tense. Deploying service members want to soak up every moment, but for many families, fights occur in those last weeks together, she said. “You have to start building those walls so you can cope with the trauma of sending someone to war,” she said.
Sanderlin and other families have sought to dampen the loss by trying to pack in activities and trips. She showed them photos of his face as a memory aid so they won’t forget.
Meanwhile, time itself breaks down. Many soldiers expect life to pause and return to exactly the same moment, Sanderlin said, but life keeps going. Kids pick up a new instrument or adopt a new sport. They have different bedtimes and new dreams.
But they also cannot escape the war in military towns, and they have watched classmates struggle after parents have been killed or wounded, she said.
Social media has fueled the expectation of a romantic, emotional homecoming, she said, with parents and kids both elated. And while women make up an increasingly larger portion of the armed forces, most of these videos conform to a traditional gender role of men returning home to doting wives and kids — or, occasionally, dogs.
The surprise videos also rarely show what reunions typically look like. They usually occur in base gyms or installation buildings amid dozens or hundreds of service members. Some wives chafe after shaving their legs for the first time in months and tug at intimate clothing, Sanderlin wrote on Twitter.
The troops are released, often triggering a chaotic scramble. Families are lost in a churning mass of identical uniforms. Children tug at the wrong legs, she wrote, hemmed in by tiny reunions all around them.
Then comes an embrace. Often it feels like a first date instead of a romantic movie moment, she said.
It is only the beginning of weeks or months of work, when the service member decompresses and struggles to adjust to a new paradigm, she said.
Army officials declined to make the Williams family available for interviews.
But the moment bounced around military family groups online, and one thing stuck out to Sanderlin’s friend, whose husband was killed in combat.
The audience applauded the family. They cheered and chanted. But among them were two Gold Star widows, themselves in a sea of elation, witnessing a moment they could never have.