Military families face challenges that don’t get the same attention as “those Hallmark moments,” experts say. (Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

by Christie Aschwanden |

An Army major comes home after nine months at war and, with cameras rolling, makes an unexpected visit to his 8-year-old daughter’s school. She runs to hug him and, tears flowing, does not let go. A Navy petty officer just back from Afghanistan reunites with her 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son during the children’s field trip to the zoo. A soldier returning from a deployment disguises himself as a catcher and surprises his wife and son at a baseball game.

Broadcast homecomings such as these have become the public face of military families post-deployment reunions, but the intense happiness of these moments can mask the challenges that lie ahead as these families navigate life after their loved ones return from war. “We call it reunion porn,” says Amy Bushatz, managing editor of Military.com’s SpouseBuzz blog and the wife of an infantry soldier. “The feeling among the people I work with and my readers is that it’s not a fair representation.” The happy welcomes tell only the “mushy reunion half of the story,” she says. “What happens when he gets home? Not just that night, but three weeks from then?”

Mental health experts say that these homecomings can bring challenges along with the happiness. “Those Hallmark moments are powerful, and we’re really drawn to them,” says Katherine Rosenblum, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but it’s important to recognize that the worrisome effects of deployment don’t end when a tour of duty is done.

“Trauma gets a lot of attention, but it’s not just trauma — it’s also reconnecting and rebuilding relationships and struggling to redefine your role in the family after you’ve been gone for some time,” Rosenblum says.

Spouses who remained home often feel as though they had managed to find a rhythm and routine, and then the service member returns and the spouse must figure out how to share some control. “How do we shift back? Can we?” Rosenblum says. “These men and women holding down the home front are carrying the burden,” Bushatz says. “When the service member comes home, it’s up to them to figure out the new normal.”

Last year, Rosenblum and colleagues published a study examining fathers’ experiences parenting after their deployments. The dads regretted missing important events in their children’s lives and felt a loss of closeness with their kids. Some found it difficult to adapt to family life. “In the military, there’s a clear command structure. But then they come home and tell their kid to clean up their room, and they say, ‘No way.’ That’s hard to adjust to,” Rosenblum says. “Parents face a lot of questions — how do I reconnect with this child who really changed while I was gone?” Some fathers confided that they needed more support expressing their emotions and finding ways to control their tempers and learn parenting skills.

“Some of these guys come home and they have to be an instant dad — it’s hard,” says Julie Provost, who blogs about military life at Soldier’s Wife, Crazy Life.

Her husband was deployed for the beginning of her son Drew’s life. “He didn’t get back until Drew was 11 months old. It took time for them to bond,” she says. Her husband told her, “I know I have a son, and I love him, but I don’t know him.”

‘I’m happy; so why am I crying?’

Reunions are sometimes a confusing time for children, says Catherine Mogil, a child psychologist and director of training for Families OverComing Under Stress, a Defense Department program that provides resiliency training to military families. Even if it’s not a surprise, a homecoming can produce a blend of emotions for kids. “There’s happiness, and maybe some anxiety — what will [the parent] be like?” Mogil says.

A deployed parent’s return home can also evoke a sense of how painful the separation was, she says — “I’ve missed you so much, and your return makes me realize how sad I am.” Confused by mixed emotions, children think, “I’m happy; so why am I crying?”

Surprise homecomings can be particularly difficult. “I get worried about showing these moments on TV, because no one knows until they’re there how they’ll react,” Mogil says. “Sometimes people are surprised by their own feelings, and you’re sharing this moment with the world.”

Even so, Bushatz understands why so many returning service members plan public surprise reunions. “It’s a little bit like your wedding day,” she says. “There’s all this imagining how you’ll see each other from across the room and you run.” She says there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to share or film a happy reunion. “This is a moment you’ve been envisioning for the entirety of the deployment. It’s a very happy moment, and you want everybody to see your joy,” Bushatz says. “It’s hard to question that motive.”

Varied reactions

When her husband, Army Sgt. First Class Joseph Camarillo, returned home from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan last December, Jessica Camarillo arranged for him to turn up unannounced to meet their 6-year-old daughter at home and 7-year-old son at his school.

“It was just something special,” she says. “We love surprising our kids, and what better surprise than to have Daddy come home?”

This was his third deployment, and the kids hadn’t been expecting him until February. “My son did a double-take, she says. “On the video, you can tell it took a second to register. He was definitely shocked.” Camarillo says that the surprise reunion was far more emotional for the kids than other times her husband has come home from tours abroad. This time, she says, they weren’t expecting his return and she saw “overwhelming relief” on her children’s faces.

She doesn’t worry that this surprise will condition the kids to expect other homecomings to happen early, because, she says, “I’m always really honest with the kids.”

Not every military parent shares Camarillo’s enthusiasm for surprises. When Kerri-Leigh Grady’s husband, a Navy commander, was returning from Afghanistan after three almost back-to-back deployments, a family member suggested that they call the local TV station in Birmingham, Ala., to film the reunion. Grady refused. She worried that the camera would pressure her 3- and 4-year-old boys to perform.

As it turned out, she was especially glad she’d said no, because of her sons’ “heartbreaking” response to their father’s appearance. The older boy’s first reaction was to hide behind his mother. “He didn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He was happy to see his father, but he was also conflicted.” And the younger son didn’t recognize his dad, though he had seen photos of him every day. “He clung to me and refused to be held by this strange man,” Grady says. “The cameras would have been long gone by the time they warmed up to their father.”

Grady objects to “reunion porn,” saying that it is too often “used to give civilians a feel-good moment and a sense of having participated in our lives.” Without actually doing anything meaningful, civilians can watch these TV moments and feel “that they support the troops, even when they don’t give a second thought to the [military spouse] neighbor struggling so hard she can barely keep the yard mowed,” Grady says.

“How many civilians have known the guilt we feel when we’re so relieved that IED didn’t hit our husband? How many civilians know how often we’re up late at night, unable to sleep because we haven’t heard from our spouse?” she asks. “They have no idea, because their only view of the deployment experience is reunion.”

The public’s perception of homecomings too often centers on one of two narratives, says Bushatz, who calls them “the hero and the monster.” In the hero narrative, the service member is heralded with patriotic pageantry, and then, with the family reunited, it’s assumed all is well. In the monster narrative, the military member comes home irreparably damaged and the family will never be normal again.

But neither of those narratives captures the true experiences of most families, Bushatz says. Life is different after deployment, she says, but most people adapt. “Military families are regular people with regular problems; it’s just that their regular problems are different from civilians’.”

Studies show that deployments can strain marriages, but they also show that military families are remarkably resilient, says Jacey Eckhart, a military sociologist and director of spouse and family programs at Military.com, a membership organization affiliated with the online employment service Monster.com.

A study published last year in the Journal of Population Economics found that every month of deployment increased the risk of divorce, but only for couples married for fewer than five years. “The researchers hypothesize that people who are better suited for military life and have more of the tools of military life are more inclined to stay with it,” Eckhart says. “Combat deployment acts on marriage like an earthquake: The stronger the marriage was to begin with, the more likely it is to be able to withstand the onslaught.”

Families who received outpourings of care from loved ones during deployment may find that this help disappears once the service member comes home, even as their need for support continues.

Small offers of help can make a big difference. “Don’t be intrusive, but just show up a little,” Bushatz says. After her husband returned, some close friends offered to watch their kids so that they could go on a weekend trip together and reconnect.

“Even if the deployment was smooth sailing, you were separated for however many months, and there are going to be growing pains,” Bushatz says. “You have to learn about each other again. Things aren’t going to be the same after deployment; they’re just not.”

Aschwanden is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism and a regular writer for The Post’s AnyBody wellness column.