As social networkers, we see viral videos every day. Whether you love watching animals act like humans or kids saying hilarious things, you’ve probably hit “share” once or twice. These quick clips give us a few minutes respite from our busy day to laugh, say “awww,”, or even get emotional. Along with flash mob proposals, trendy makeup transformations, and dogs’ twerking to rap music, one of the most popular forms of viral video right now is footage of deployed military members returning home to their families. These videos are shared en masse, accompanied by captions about how beautiful, heartwarming, happy, and inspirational those moments are.
At a surface level, I agree with these descriptions of military homecoming videos. It’s adorable to watch little kids screaming in happiness and running into their mother’s arms for the first time in six months. It’s jaw-dropping to witness a young father step off an airplane and finally meet his baby for the very first time. These images may make your heart swell and your eyes water. Homecoming videos make people think about the importance of family. What I’d like to see people think more about, however, is the importance of support for the families of deployed troops.
There comes a point when Internet virility becomes voyeuristic. Are you clicking “share” because you’re connecting with that family’s story and thinking about their struggle, or did you just share it for likes? Are you truly moved by what you’re witnessing and willing to provide support, or were you simply briefly entertained?
As the daughter of an active military member, I have a complicated relationship with homecoming videos. On one hand, it’s great that people can see what military families experience. Our lifestyle isn’t easy. The family side of military service is often overlooked, constructing us as secondary to our serving member. Whether we chose that lifestyle or were born into it, it becomes our duty to also “serve our country.” If we complain about it, we’re viewed as ungrateful to the hardworking person who risks their life for us daily. Military kids and spouses have a job: we maintain home lives for our serving members to step back into, allowing them to concentrate on their work. At the same time, we struggle with constant longing, fear, and sometimes even danger.
I can’t help wondering whether people watching and sharing homecoming videos truly realize the blood, sweat, and tears that lead up to them; not just on the part of the military member, but also the family. My father is a fighter pilot in the RCAF. I spent long periods of time throughout my childhood without him. As a kid, I often didn’t know where he was or how long he’d been away. As a teen, I stopped asking whether he was in another country or just working such long hours that I hadn’t seen him for weeks. I spent countless Christmases and birthdays with only my mother and brother while my dad was deployed. I’m old enough that Skype and Facetime didn’t exist, so I didn’t have the luxury of video calling. We were lucky if he could manage a scratchy phone call on Christmas. While he was gone, my family didn’t simply stay home. Instead, we moved from place to place, sometimes from country to country. My entire childhood, including my education, was determined by where the military sent my dad next. We learned to adapt because that’s the duty we were born into.
Each time my dad returned home, my emotions went beyond being glad to see him after so long. My tears fell from relief that he was alive. They fell because I was glad my mother wouldn’t have to raise us alone for a few months. They fell because I felt sorry for myself after hearing about explosions, hostage takings, and plane crashes and biting my nails until we heard from him. I also cried because I always knew he would leave again. That was his job. That was our lives. An outsider witnessing our reunions might have found them “heartwarming,” and to an extent they were, but it’s much more complicated than a viral video can communicate.
A viral video montage of my family reuniting could never communicate the times in adolescence when I begged my parents to place me in boarding school so I wouldn’t have to move away from my friends for the 13th time. It couldn’t catch the bitter fights I had with my father when he came home from months away and expected me to drop my routine to see him; the hurt he felt when I couldn’t because I needed to have a life, or the confusion I felt when he showed up and told me what to do after what felt like abandonment. A viral video could never communicate his pain as he spent holidays, our birthdays, and Father’s Day alone in cold barracks, or my mother’s pain when we lashed out at her because we missed him, even though she was doing everything she could.
I don’t mean to sound bitter about my childhood. I lived comfortably and traveled the world. I’m fortunate to have the unique experiences a military upbringing afforded me. There is simply a much deeper history to what you witness in homecoming videos. Seeing families constructed as nothing but “cute” or reduced to tools for teaching non-military people to value their own families feels hurtful sometimes. Captions made of meaningless heart emojis make me feel like a zoo animal being peered at through glass. My tears as a child weren’t “cute.” My experience wasn’t always “heartwarming.” It didn’t feel inspirational to have my father back after his third deployment in a short period of time; it was exhausting for all of us. Internet virility constructs a false veil of positivity around deployment homecomings that glosses over harsh realities like stress-induced divorce and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My point is not that homecoming videos are inappropriate, or that they shouldn’t be shared. They truly do make you realize how much we need to value family and support our military members. They should not, however, be reduced to momentary entertainment. Try to share these videos with a little bit of reflection. When you watch them, do you think about what that moment really means? Thinking about the context of what you’re witnessing, even if you have no way of learning the person’s story, is essential to sharing and enjoying the videos without exploiting the people in the video. Instead of just typing “#SupportOurTroops,” consider taking real action. I’m often frustrated by these captions, recalling how much time my mother spent alone without so much as a phone call, even from other military spouses. Do you research the ways in which you can support the families you’re watching during deployment?
There is power in social media. Use the share tool as an opportunity to reach out, rather than simply to amuse your friends before moving on with your day. If nothing else, at least keep in mind that what you’re witnessing is the result of someone’s struggle. Homecoming videos are more than a few minutes of entertainment. It doesn’t feel good to hear how much you enjoy watching our tenuous moments, or how adorable you think our tears are. By all means, watch and share, but I urge you to do so with respect and kindness. You never know how close to home those videos might hit for the people around you.
Read more of Courtney’s work.