“The Distance Between You Grows”—the Many Difficult Truths of Military Family Homecomings

Flags. Best dresses. High heels. Fanfare.

Posters. Babies. Fancy uniforms.

Red, white, and blue everywhere.

These are the images we see on the military’s best days: Homecoming. The day that ends a deployment—a long separation—and marks the beginning of “together again.”

But does it really?

Jenny Lynne Stroup kisses her husband Matthew for the first time after he returns home from a seven-month tour aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in 2011.

Jenny Lynne Stroup kisses her husband Matthew for the first time after he returns home from a seven-month tour aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in 2011. Photo courtesy of the author.

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I’ve been the mom on the pier in my best dress and high heels, handing our baby to his daddy for the first time. I’ve been the wife in my best dress and high heels standing in the airport with cute toddlers decked out in red, white, and blue waiting for our sailor-turned-temporary soldier to come walking down the terminal.

So, I know the excitement. The fanfare. I know the anticipation and the celebration.

I also know what happens next.

It’s something most people don’t talk about. It doesn’t look good on YouTube like the thousands of homecoming videos. It’s gritty and raw and is a long way from the shininess of Homecoming Day.

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Reintegration’s a beast.

It doesn’t look like banners, best dresses, and cheer. It looks more like misunderstanding, fighting, and hiding.

This underbelly stays locked in the confines of your own mind, because heaven forbid anyone see that reintegration is hard and messy. But it is.

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For six months, a year—maybe longer—you and your partner have grown and changed, except you didn’t do it together. In fact, you probably did it on separate continents. He’s been in work-only mode and you’ve been in single-parent, do-all-the-things mode. Meshing the two is not for the faint of heart.

Your systems for getting everyone ready and out of the house work. Your timelines for nap time and bath time work. You know where the dishes are and where the wipes are kept. You know which lovey is your child’s favorite and which cartoon he could watch for hours on end.

And now? Now there is an extra adult in not only in your house, but in your bed. He’s sharing a bathroom with you and creating twice the amount of laundry that you are used to doing. And he has opinions. Lots of opinions, on systems, and timelines, and how the dishes might be better in this cabinet over here.

 Matthew Stroup meets his six-month-old son for the first time after a seven-month tour aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Photo courtesy of the author.

Matthew Stroup meets his six-month-old son for the first time after a seven-month tour aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Photo courtesy of the author.

And as he’s talking your brain has slipped into the red zone: “What the f***?!? Is he serious? He can’t be serious. Is he really trying to mess with the way I do things? They work. They’ve worked this whole time. Why is he screwing with a good plan?”

Because he wants in. Because he is trying to learn the delicate balance of work and home life. Because he wants to be a part of, not apart from.

But your entire body reacts to the words he continues to speak. And with every raise of your eyebrow and every clench of your fist, the distance between you grows. He can see that he doesn’t fit here. His thoughts and ideas are unwelcome. He doesn’t understand why they are unwelcome, only that your rejection of changing the systems and timelines means he is not wanted.

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Except it doesn’t. Your reaction doesn’t mean he isn’t wanted. It means you don’t know how to give up the control you’ve had to exhibit for so long. Your systems and timelines worked because they had to. There was no one else to offer suggestions and opinions for months. Your way had to work, because if it didn’t, you and your people were screwed.

First the misunderstanding. Can’t he see how hard you worked to hold it altogether? Can’t he see that every time he tries to change your systems and timelines it feels like a slap in the face?

Jenny Lynne Stroup and her children greet Matthew Stroup in an airport terminal after a nine-month deployment in 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

Jenny Lynne Stroup and her children greet Matthew Stroup in an airport terminal after a nine-month deployment in 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

And to him, all the brushing off of his suggestions feels like rejection. Straight-up rejection—that you are better off without him, because look at how well you survived while he was deployed.

Then the fighting. When it is clear you will not budge on “How we do things around here,” and he feels pushed out, he will fight to bring himself back in. It may look like him just doing what he wants—not following your lists and rules. He may look like the “fun dad” because he doesn’t abide by systems and timelines. And this makes you angry. How dare he be the fun dad while you look like the wicked, rule-making mom?

Last the hiding. When you’re all out of fight over systems and timelines and dishes and wipes, you retreat. Sometimes literally, to another room, but mostly just into yourself. Locking away your thoughts and emotions to keep the peace. He retreats too. Usually to the office. The place where he has all the control, and the systems and timelines are his. And they are important. So you both hide, stung by the pain of rejection that neither of you ever intended to inflict.

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Reintegration’s a beast. By definition, it’s “the action or process of restoring elements regarded as contrasting to unity.” In military speak, it’s the time period during which a family tries to restore itself; to bring together separate entities and have them function as a whole unit once again.

 Matthew Stroup arrives home after nine months away as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan in 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

Matthew Stroup arrives home after nine months away as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan in 2013. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fun fact: No one tells you how long this reintegration period will take. You assume, because you and your husband make such a great team, that reintegration will be a breeze. Two weeks, maybe a month—tops. By the time he goes back to work full time, you will have this down. You’ll be on the same page.

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All will be well.

For my family, reintegration lasted years. Back-to-back deployments with minimal dwell time in between meant I never stepped out of deployment do-all-the-things mode and he never left work mode. Couple that with the ramifications of being affected by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and it’s a recipe for disaster.

And it was.

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Jenny Lynne Stroup

Jenny Lynne Stroup is writer, blogger, podcaster, mental health advocate, MilSpouse, MOPS alum, and recovering human being. She has a background in marketing and education. As a freelance writer, Jenny Lynne uses stories to bridge the gap between the civilian and military communities. She is passionate about narrowing that gap and sees her role as a military spouse as an opportunity to reach both communities.

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