If that girl there on the right looks even remotely familiar, you’ve got a good eye — that’s me, circa 1991, crooked teeth and all. To the far left in the photo is my mom, in the center my father, and on the right of the hug is my Cosby-sweater clad brother.
This past Mother’s Day weekend I invited my parents over and cooked lunch, as well as put in a request they bring over a long-ago filed away copy of the newspaper whose cover we once all graced. Twenty-one years after the photo was publish my mom was understandably curious why I’d request such a thing, though I knew this post and asking for that photo have both been a long time coming.
You see, we live in a very military-heavy area. For the most part I grew up here and am proud to live here now. The catch is that the local news seems to be fond of sharing videos of soldier/child surprise reunions. While I’m as prone to shed a tear as the rest over the scene, my guts also hurt when I come across these types of clips.
I’ve been there. I was that kid.
In fourth grade my dad was deployed to the Persian Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm on the USNS Mercy. I was 10. I knew that Italy looked like a boot and his ship was somewhere near it. I knew that he was gone and that no one would commit to telling me when he would be back. I had a little yellow bracelet that read “Until my Dad comes home” and once cried so hard when I thought no one was listening that a neighbor lady heard me and, much to my embarrassment, stopped me the next time we crossed paths to try and comfort me.
Eventually the call came and we went to the airport to pick Dad up. I remember feeling relieved that it was over, that he would be home and I could go back to just being a kid among many peers, who wasn’t at any more of a heightened risk of losing a parent than the rest, who wouldn’t wear a bracelet and dream of a place where massive Navy ships met deserts.
And then we were there — and as this was back in the days before heightened security — we, along with cameras and reporters, squished into the gate where the heroes would disembark the plane. I’d had no idea the press would be there, and all at once became distracted by the hullabaloo happening around me.
By the time the plane had taxied and the ramp was secured there was a crowd. As I recall men disembarked and were met with shouts of joy and tears, cameras rolled and flashbulbs burst. By the time our hero walked out of the small door the pitch of the room was at its peak — and I was lost in the moment.
Not the one I should have been, but the circus happening around me.
My eyes in that photo, as the rest of my family clings to one another? They’re watching the crowd, focused on the cameras and not on my father.
The next day the newspapers started arriving, brought to the doorstep by neighbors and friends, so that we could have as many copies to file away for posterity as we could possibly need. Upon setting eyes on the photo for the first time I felt a pang in the gut — that my distraction had been caught. That my mom and brother were on the front page in the right moment and my easily wondering attention had revealed my true colors.
More on helping your family cope with war from BabyCenter here.
You see, I’ve been there, in those shoes, and hold a firm belief that a child reuniting with their deployed parent is a private matter. Perhaps meant to be photographed and scrapbooked away by a friend, but not for the press.
As overjoyed as I too am to see a father (or mother) reunite with their little one, I feel utterly ill when it is sprung upon an unsuspecting child. That moment, after months of their small body doing its damnedest to hold it together, when their face falls apart and true vulnerability cracks through, is not meant for their peers to see. Not appropriate for the newspaper, and not something that should be splayed on the local news or the World Wide Web.
Give the child who has been through so much a moment of privacy! Allow them to fall apart and into the arms of their loved one without the world watching.
The video below from CNN for example, viewed by over 3 million people, is of 9-year-old Skylar, who is put on stage in a pretend spelling bee and asked to spell “sergeant” before her dad appears…and she, understandably, breaks down.
What is it about us that goes so far as to intentionally trick children into showing their raw emotions literally on stage so that cameras can film each heartbreaking frame? For me the issue is not just that these moments happen to be caught on camera, but they are increasingly elaborately staged to maximize emotional impact.
On Mother’s Day I told my mom what I planned to write about and she seemed concerned. Her memories of the moment captured above are more joyous and her reaction to soldier/child reunions less skeptical. I assured her that it’s not the reunion at all that I have mixed feelings about, it’s the practice of putting a child’s pain on public display. In hindsight, compared to Skylar, I feel lucky to have been simply photographed.
I know where my opinion stands from my own experience, but I’m curious to hear from others. What do you think of child/soldier surprise reunions that are filmed for the press?
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