While my specialty is newborns, I do have a special spot in my heart for deployment homecomings, being a Navy wife myself. There’s nothing quite like the experience, the air is simply electric! So, while newborns will always be my favorite sessions to do, I will never say no to a homecoming.
Homecomings are one of the best parts about being a Navy spouse or partner. They’re the tail end of one of the absolute worse parts: deployments. Days and days that turn into months and months without your husband, wife, mommy, daddy, without your best friend. Finally, the day gets closer. There’s anticipation, excitement, nervousness, and a fair amount of mystery involved as well. Details about a ships movements are kept quiet, so as not to break OPSEC. So, when you ask a mil spouse when their sailor is coming home, you’ll likely get a vague response. “Well, we think sometime next month!” Even up to the day of homecoming, the exact times of arrival are unknown. All of this just adds to the excitement!
My last homecoming photoshoot, before COVID, was at Naval Air Station Lemoore, on the operations side of the base, in a hangar bay. A carrier group was returning from deployment. It was June, 2019
The energy was palpable! Kids running everywhere, laughing and shouting! Tiny hands waving tiny flags in the air. Nervous twisting of wedding rings and checking makeup in mirrors. Clusters of spouses and friends who have leaned on each other over the past few months, depending on each other in a way that is unique only to military spouses, laughing and chattering excitedly in small groups.
Photographers rush around in the background, capturing these small moments, photos with signs painted with loving hands for mommy or daddy, a sleeping baby decked out in red, white, and blue that is about to meet daddy for the first time. Someone has taped sheets of bubble wrap to the floor and the kids are loving it. Checking phones for updates every two minutes. Finally, someone announces they’ll be here soon.
All the waiting and anticipation has culminated into this final moment! The jets do a fly over as screams and cheers fill the air! There is a long row of people, not-so-patiently waiting for them to land so they can rush to their loved ones. Finally, the jets pull to a stop. In one synchronized move, canopies open. As the sailors climb onto the ground, the wait is over. Heels are tossed to the side and forgotten as adults and kids alike all rush to their sailor. Photographers are swarming around this mad scene trying to keep up with their family, camera clicking the whole way, and attempting to not knock over a child (ask me how I know this… to the little girl I collided with, I’m sorry! But glad you’re ok! lol) . There’s laughter, tears, and a lot of hugs.
This is a typical homecoming. This was before COVID.
Now, things are different.
There’s a whole other level of anticipation, need for your partner to be home, a brand new element to worry about on both sides, and uncertainty of what homecoming is going to look like.
In July 2020, when Navy released word that no one would be coming to op-side for the homecoming of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, plans changed. Report was given that cars could wait in the commissary parking lot on the main side of base and that sailors would be shuttled via buses to the parking lot. It was unclear if people would have to wait in their cars for their loved ones or if they could have the same homecoming experience there.
When I talked with Carly, a spouse anxiously awaiting the return of her husband, I could feel the disappointment. We talked about options and what would be the best idea. With their little one, waiting in a hot car in the 104 degree California heat is not a good idea, even with air conditioning.
So, change of plans.
Signs were still decorated and painted, and hung up at home. A banner was put over the garage. Tiny flags lined the driveway and sidewalk. The long wait for her sailor to come back was done at home. This was different from the last in more ways than one.
It was quieter, but the excitement was still there. There were less people, but the energy was still the same. The same anticipation, the same nervous twisting of jewelry, the same quick check of the phone every two minutes. Friends and family were there waiting, kids still running around, playing and babbling, the familiar nervous chatter and laughter filled the air.
The phone call still came — he was almost there!
There was an excited rush as everyone went outside. Looking up and down the street, pointing and then cheering when the truck carrying the long awaited sailor pulled up. The rush was the same, the camera clicking the same, the hugs and laughing and cheering — all the same. So much had to change, so much was different, and yet so much was still the same. COVID had taken the homecoming experience so many had dreamed about away. But these are military spouses.
They are tougher than even they know, and it will take more than COVID to break them.
Writer/photographer Kat Mellon is the mother of four and a Navy wife stationed at NAS Lemoore, California. Before moving to the West Coast, she was a firefighter/paramedic and worked in EMS. Her portfolio can be found here.