We have all seen the videos. We sat in our bedrooms with our eyes glued to our laptop screens and watched the long-awaited husband in uniform make a dramatic entrance off of the airplane and run into to waiting arms of his pregnant wife. There is usually a song playing in the background, like “Home” by Daughtry or “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips. Sometimes the soldier even plans a huge surprise homecoming for his loved ones. These are the clips in the video that people really like. The real tearjerkers. Some of my personal favorites have been the soldier disguising himself in a high school football uniform and running out on the field with his son, or showing up at his daughter’s school, or perhaps the most predictable of them all: the returning soldier, fully adorned in his uniform and boots immediately drops to his knee and whips a glistening diamond ring out of his pocket. But here is the catch with these military homecoming videos that receive endless retweets, shares and praising comments. Nobody shows you what happens when the camera is off. Nobody tells you that the only glamorous moment of a military relationship is the initial 30 seconds when you see your long-awaited loved one for the first time in months. They don’t tell you that the very first night they’re home it feels like you are sleeping with a stranger, or that they jump at the smallest sounds of a door slamming shut or a train going by because it reminds them of helicopters that dropped bombs on their base or the shot of a bullet that missed their head by an inch. Nobody warns you that there is a large chance that they will forget how to love you.
There is a sense of heartwarming romance that people tend to associate with military relationships. “Wow” they say, “they must really be in love to go through all of that together.”
“How special it must be to receive handwritten letters!” Is another favorite of mine.
“So, you must be considering marriage right?” That one is just funny.
“Think of that moment when he comes home and surprises you in his army uniform. How adorable will that be?” This one just enrages me. In my own experience I have found nothing fun or exciting about being part of an army relationship. In fact, to sum up the entire experience in one word whenever I explain it to someone I say: fear.
Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid. Although this is a clearly stated and concise definition, fear itself is a complex emotion that all of us are faced with at some point in our lives. Some of us may experience fear when we see a spider or have to climb flights of stairs. For some, fear can be overcome but for others it can be paralyzing. In the last two years, the fear I felt every waking moment of William’s deployment was the worst type of fear I could ever imagine.
I started dating William the last week of our senior year of high school. He was one of my best friends. It was never meant to turn into a serious relationship, just a fun fling that I suspected would last a summer at most. The problem was that he had enlisted in the army and would be leaving for basic training at the beginning of July for three months. We didn’t have that much time together before he left, but the time we did have proved to us that this would definitely be more than just a short-term relationship. We decided to stay together through his basic training and see how things went. During these three months there was no contact between the two of us other than writing letters. Although this may seem romantic to an outsider the actual process was extremely complicated, especially considering that fact I was about to start my freshman year of college and was incredibly preoccupied about the challenges I would face there.
I was in my Writing for College class when I heard the news. I was told through a text that simply read “I’m leaving for Afghanistan in January.” It was already mid-December. I was so taken aback that I had to leave class. From that first moment he told me I was so overcome by fear that it was almost paralyzing. I couldn’t fathom that he would be gone for 10 months. That was longer than we had even been together. Also, it didn’t help that there was a 10-hour time difference between here and Afghanistan so it would be nearly impossible to communicate. It was difficult to fully understand what a big deal that was initially, but when he was gone all I could think of was what he was doing and if he was safe, or even alive since I could not check in with him regularly. He would tell me stories of how they were attacked most days of the week (never in too much detail of course, because of very strict rules about giving information to “civilians”). They slept in bunkers with fifteen to twenty people sharing a space smaller than a dorm room and rarely ate a meal that wasn’t pre-made and came from a packet. I remember him saying that there was no sunshine, just dirt and endless deserts.
Everyone says to face your fears and that will help you get over them. But what do you do when your fear is out of your control and you physically can’t face it? This type of fear was particularly difficult to deal with because there was nothing I could do to ease the pain it caused me. Nobody really understood what I was going through, and there was no way for me to know what was going on all the time in Afghanistan so I really had nothing else to do besides keep busy and wait for things to get better. We had a span of one hour on most days when we could text and overall I would say we talked on the phone about five times. No matter how busy I was, I was constantly worrying about him and it really took me a long time to figure out how to deal with the stress of this constant fear. Honestly, I don’t think I ever figured it out.
I had a lot of hope above anything else. A constant flow of fantasies of the day William would come home filled my mind. I envisioned him in his army uniform walking up to my front door with a bouquet of flowers. I unsuspectingly, would open the door, see him and jump into his arms in tears. We wouldn’t be able to leave each other’s side and we would spend hours catching up and telling each other how much we missed each other. We would go out to a fancy dinner and finally be able to show off our relationship. He would hold my hand and introduce me to people as his girlfriend. He would finally be able to text me “good morning” and “goodnight” and talk to me on the phone whenever he wanted. He would make me laugh with his unique sense of humor and his sarcastic remarks would remind me what it was like when we didn’t have a care in the world. It would be like he never left. Like nothing ever happened. Instead, it went more like this.
William showed up on September 4th and surprised me at my school’s gym during the third mile of my elliptical workout. I saw him, completely froze and clamped my hand over my mouth. My legs started shaking and I stepped off of the machine unsure of what to do next. He was just standing there, very stiffly, laughing nervously at my shocked reaction. It almost didn’t seem real. I don’t remember much after that moment. Later on when I was thinking about it I realized I couldn’t recall walking out of the gym with him by my side. I didn’t know how I had gotten dressed and driven to the restaurant for dinner or what time we got into bed that night. It was all a blur. My dream, or what I thought was my dream, was finally coming true, but instead felt like some twisted version of my own reality. As I laid in bed I realized that the person beside me was not my boyfriend of almost a year and a half, or my best friend from high school, or the person I had spent 10 months crying over and waiting for every single minute of every single day. This person was a distant, cold stranger. The moment that thought crept into my head, I knew things were different.
As the months passed and William and I attempted to find a new “normal” as we called it, I began to notice some changes. He wasn’t quite as affectionate as he once was and he seemed very timid and uncomfortable around people in general. During this time of adjustment my mind would frequently flash back to our first date. We went to to the movies to see The Great Gatsby. It was one of my favorite books and I couldn’t wait to see it. William, who had never even heard of Gatsby was less than thrilled to be seeing the movie but feigned excitement and had me explain the plot to him on the way to the theater. While I intently watched the movie, he nervously attempted to figure out the smoothest way to get his arm around my shoulders and debated over when was the best time to reach for my hand. I would think about this night a lot in the years to come.
It wasn’t so bad at first, but as time passed post-deployment I began to notice that he no longer attempted to hold my hand or put his arm around me. Our conversations consisted of one word answers and short meaningless sentences, mostly on his end. He had seemingly lost interest in anything except the army and showed this by making comments and references that were foreign to me, and using army jargon in everyday life when it was entirely unnecessary. Despite my attempts to learn about this passion he had, he stopped making an effort to understand what was going on in my life. I often wondered where the boy was who sat for two and a half hours watching The Great Gatsby.
It all happened very quickly. One minute I was counting down the days until he was back in the U.S. and the next I was dreading the next time I would see him because of our awkward small talk and pure discomfort around each other. We were no longer the couple that went on dates to the movies. We were the couple that exchanged awkward glances at social events, and always stood a little too far away from one another with an air of uncertainty looming over us. I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I never felt a complete sense of comfort around him even though we had been dating for nearly two years. One day it hit me that 10 months apart from someone is not something to be taken lightly. That is nearly an entire year of new experiences, growth and change that we missed out on. It was like someone took a giant eraser and obliterated everything we ever knew about each other, forcing us to start over. I could never begin to, nor could I try to comprehend what he went through in Afghanistan, just as he didn’t understand how much I had changed and grown up at Marist. We were headed down two completely different paths in our lives, and as much as we tried it didn’t look like those paths were ever going to cross again.
On the rare occasion that I watch these military homecoming videos I don’t usually shed a tear or consider the experience heartwarming. I only feel anxious and a little cynical at the thought of the difficult obstacles that lie ahead of that young, starry-eyed couple. My experience was rare for an eighteen year old college student but probably not all that different from other women who have dealt with a deployment and its repercussions. There is something to be said about the two people involved in a military relationship. The woman waits at home, does what she can to stay strong and holds on to a small piece of hope that one day things will be better. But I have a feeling that that isn’t always the case. William didn’t come back as the same person he was, or the person I wanted him to be. He may have been a hero to America, but he no longer knew how to be mine.