Military Departures are Painfully Ordinary

Posted April 26, 2009, at 8:03 p.m.

A scene in the movie “The Way We Get By,” about the troop greeters at the Bangor International Airport, haunted me for days after I saw it. Like waking up with residual feelings from a strange dream the night before, I couldn’t shake a case of elusive, emotional deja vu. For a while there, it was like I was living in the previous decade, when Dustin was deploying at a rigorous pace out of Jacksonville, Fla.

The scene that threw me back to this point in my life was the one where Joan, one of three main “characters” in “The Way We Get By,” is saying goodbye to her granddaughter Amy before Amy leaves for a yearlong deployment in Iraq. Like my husband, Dustin, Amy is a helicopter pilot. Also like Dustin, Amy wears a flight suit. And just like so many of our own farewells, Amy’s goodbye scene takes place in a hangar. Her family surrounds her, and although there are tears and worried expressions, there is also a surprising amount of normalcy. It’s mundane, even. Just like Dustin’s departures always have been.

This might surprise people who have never said goodbye to their spouse for an extended period of time. What “The Way We Get By” captures so poignantly and translucently, however, is how relatively ordinary a farewell can be. In the movie, Amy makes small talk with her family while keeping a watchful eye on the rest of her fellow pilots to judge when it is time for the real thing: the real, final goodbye. At times, Amy and her well-wishers even seem bored. They watch the clock with the impatience of someone ready to “get it over with.” (I’ve always likened this to ripping off a Band-Aid: You know it’s going to hurt, but you just want to be done with it. Tearing it off slowly seems like a mild form of torture.)

Indeed, as is characteristic of other things in the military, there is plenty of “hurry up and wait” time at these farewells. The service member is required to arrive for muster at the departure site at a specified time (sometimes called “Show Time”). The Show Time, however, is not when the service member will actually leave for deployment. It could be an hour or more before the final goodbye. What happens between Show Time and departure is not unlike waiting for any other commercial airline flight that is delayed. You sit. You wait. You look at your watch. You say, “Well, let me give you another hug real quick because we’ll probably be leaving soon.” Then you wait some more. You feel like you should be hugging nonstop because you know goodbye is coming, but then there is more waiting. And you start to feel kind of bored. Yes, bored. You are ready to rip the Band-Aid off and get on with your life so that the homecoming will be that much sooner.

Compounding the issue is the fact that most service members have been trained against excessive public displays of affection while in uniform. In general, once these men and women have passed through the doors of the hangar, they are in full military mode. Except they also are painfully aware that they are about to say goodbye to their family for a long time. They are torn between feeling just as sad but also obligated to maintain a level of professionalism. It wasn’t unusual for Dustin to give me quick shoulder pats and other one-arm hugs while we waited at the terminal.

Some military wives opt to drop off their spouse at the curb outside the terminal to avoid all of the awkwardness.

I suspect that civilians imagine these scenes quite differently. You’d expect a dramatic breakdown, people wailing and clawing at their loved one’s sleeve, begging them to stay. The reality is much different. And ironically, that is exactly what makes departures so heartbreaking. There you are, waiting together in a hangar, watching the clock and making small talk, a situation that ordinarily would be the picture of total boredom, such as waiting for your car at the auto shop. It feels so normal, like doing chores together on a Sunday afternoon.

Then, suddenly, your husband notices that his co-workers are gathering with their green sea bags at the door leading to the tarmac. “Looks like it’s time,” he says. Your heart is beating faster. All this time, you were just sitting there waiting. Now everything is set into motion at a quick pace. You’ve already hugged each other a hundred times; how do you make this one different? Longer? It doesn’t matter, because now there is no time. Your husband is rushed. He quickly pecks you on the cheek. You start to cry. You hug each other one last time. Then he walks away, falls into the crowd of flight suits and sea bags.

And just like that, he is gone.

You wonder, why didn’t we hold each other and not let go that entire time we were waiting and watching the clock. Even as you know that the next time it will be no different.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying … ,” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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