where stories are told
It's a truth universally known, whether you're a military family or not. Deployments suck.
There's no other words to describe it. It just plain sucks.
Another universally known truth among military families is that anything and everything that could go wrong, does. Pipes break, roofs leak, kids get sick, the car breaks down, kids spray paint the side of the house, dog gets out of the fence, the lawnmower NEVER works (and forget the weed-eater, I assure you it's useless until it's all over with, it will magically start working again upon homecoming- I promise), it's mandatory that the washing machine leak or altogether break, bug infestations that come outta nowhere, sink holes that randomly develop under your deck and almost swallow your house?... yeah, you name it, it's happened.
"I learned the term "deployment spouse" during our recent deployment. I had a very unexpected surgery come up. The woman at the triage desk checking me in kept asking when my husband would be there. Through tears, I must have explained a thousand times in a thousand different ways that he would in fact not be able to be there. The she moved on to my family in California. They also would not be there in time. Flash forward to surgery day and a fellow spouse drove me, sat with me, was there when I woke up, helped me put underwear on, helped me use the bathroom, drove me home, spent the night with me, spent the next week checking on me and forever cemented herself in my heart. She is now one of my best friends. My heart will forever warm when I hear the term "deployment spouse". I know that is the person that is there for you through EVERYTHING when your spouse can't be. " - Courtney
" 2011- our first deployment, I got stuck on the roof of our house. During a bad storm, several roofing shingles were flipped up and I was determined to handle it on my own and not call my Dad. I was worried we would end up with a leak in our house, so I climbed up there during the storm... and was too scared to climb back down. I sat up there for a while until the neighbors came home and were moral support. " - Khristen
"My son broke his arm 2 times while he was deployed. I had a baby on the first deployment and on the last, my dad died the day he left." - Ginger
"One deployment, shortly after he had left, I started finding puddles of water in the kitchen of the townhome we were renting at the time. The maintenance person came out multiple times to try and figure out the issue. After about a couple of weeks of my floor basically flooding, and destroying the wood, they figured it was somehow coming from the next door unit. They had to tear out the entire first floor's flooring and replace everything- and this was all going on a I had family in town. From the time I first found the water to the time the floors were done, it took about 6 weeks. " - Kara
"My best story isn't with my current husband, but with my ex-husband. He was on his way to Iraq...not even out of the country yet...when Hurricane Katrina hit. He was on a high tempo deployment schedule so we decided that me and the baby would move back home (I'm from New Orleans) to be close to family. We moved into the house and week later he leaves for deployment. A week after that, I find myself and my 10 month old son evacuating. Because we had just moved in and everything was in his name, I had absolutely no proof that I even lived in Louisiana. Then our bank account was robbed in the middle of this. So I found myself stranded in Houston with no money, no way to prove I was eligible for help, and a 10 month old who chose that moment to decide he was done breastfeeding. My son took his first real steps in the hotel while we were evacuated. Thank God family had evacuated to the same place I had, so I had help with the money situation. We managed to sneak back in to do some mitigation...tarp roofs, etc to prevent further damage. Our house had a tree in it down to the foundation and two trees hanging over it threatening to come down. Was finally able to go home and live in the damaged house ... and wound up riding out Hurricane Rita. One of the longest nights of my life listening to those hanging trees creak and groan. Managed to find a crew that could get the tree out of my house but they couldn't haul the debris off, so it was sitting in my front yard until local authorities could get to it. On my son's birthday, I discovered he was sick with strep...which turned out to be a blessing. His room was on the other side of the house so I slept on the couch and gave my younger siblings my bed for the night in anticipation that the baby would be waking up a lot. Around 2am, I wake up and something looked weird. I sit up and realize there's a funny light outside. Looked out the front door and my entire front lawn is 3 foot high flames ad they are about a foot from the house. Grab the phone to call 911... got bounced around because not everything was back up and running yet...grabbed the baby (it was already smokey in his room), and roused everyone else. Grabbed the only flashlight I could find and led everyone out the back door and through the yard. We had to climb over trees and debris and break through the remnants of my neighbors fence to safely get out. The funny part about it is that the only flashlight I could find quickly was a toy...it was a pig. And it oinked when you turned it on. It automatically turned off every few minutes. So, here I am at 2am, my house is on fire and I'm leading a line of people through the dark climbing over s*** with this d***** oinking flashlight. Luckily the fire department got there quickly and saved the house. Then I got to spend the rest of the deployment fixing my house. I learned to do sheet rock, roofing, and a bunch of other skills because there weren't enough contractors to go around. My husband (at the time) was gone for 10 months (they deemed the largest natural disaster in US History not enough reason to send him home). I had everything fixed by the time he got home.
On the upside, having survived all that, deployments don't scare me even a little any longer. It would take a lot to top that experience. " - Leigh
As a member of the military community and a photographer, I honestly feel all of this deep down in my heart and soul. These are my people. We are all so different, yet we are all held together by this common thread. We love someone in the military. We know what it feels like to watch them go away, but we also know what it feels like when they come back. And oh-my-heart it's amazing. So here I am, I get to see it come full circle. I know that struggle, but gosh, do I know that joy. When I'm out there on that pier shooting these families and their homecomings, it's personal for me. I've been there in their shoes, I know what this day means to them. As a mother, I know what this means to the kids. It's everything.
I know how all this sounds, it sounds crazy and hectic and chaotic. Make no mistake, it is. But I think if you ask most of us, we wouldn't change it for the world. It keeps us honeymoonin'. And it makes us strong. It makes us resilient. We know where our priorities lie, we know what's important. I know during each deployment, I learn more about myself. I have more self confidence, I have more self esteem- where before I didn't. It feels so good to know that there are people counting on you- we are a team. My other half is across the world cheering and praying for me, with total confidence that I can handle whatever comes our way. And again...there is nothing like coming home. I have never in my life experienced so much joy, anticipation, excitement, and exhaustion. It's like a cathartic moment where it all has been building up to this one point. And when he steps off the ship and we finally physically touch again, my heart is whole. I can literally feel it come all back together.
"Is it worth it? YES! Because of The Man! Because even though it SUCKS going through it, most of these [stories] are funny now...because it's nice to know you're not alone...and because there is NOTHING like the coming home!!!" - Leah
"Deployment taught me that I'm strong enough to stand on my own two feet and keep up- not only myself, but my children- alive and well. Yes things go wrong in "Sally Jones'" house down the road too... instead of playing victim to the circumstance, I was able to rise and accomplish or achieve independence. Don't get me wrong- super ready for the help when he gets home too! But our last deployment was a growing tool for me. It build my self esteem and self worth. I have confidence now and I know that I CAN." - Tamara
And for total transparency and authenticity, here's an image of me ugly crying from our homecoming in 2016. This is that cathartic moment of everything over the last 7 months- this is what all of those emotions look like on me.
Last year I embarked on a journey to document our daily lives in a way that I had never done before. I made the decision to take one photo a day for the year. My goal was to show truth; to show our mess, our chaos, our adventures, and our love.
I was nervous and wondered if I would complete it...would I give up? We had a new baby- would life be too overwhelming to keep up with it everyday? Well, I can answer whole heartedly that YES- YES IT CAN BE OVERWHELMING. And I failed. About 20 times I failed.
The picture above is one of my very favorite images. I can remember the snow falling- everything was covered. The whole town was shut down. Our neighborhood was blanketed in fluffy, perfect snow. The sun was shining and reflecting off of the snow absolutely blinding me. After breakfast, it was like someone sounded the alarm. Every kid in the neighborhood came running outside to play. We went to a neighbors house for chili and hot chocolate, we built a sledding hill off of our porch, made a snowman, and the kids played until they were soaked and frozen solid. He wanted to go back out and play, but everything was drying, so he crawled up in his window just to look at the winter wonderland outside.
Of course on day 4 of being snowed in, we all met again at another neighbor's house for a "Snowed In" Party where we all just brought whatever dish we could make out of the ingredients we had on hand. Too much snow for any businesses to open up and certainly too much to drive in!
I know, I know, us Southerner's absolutely lose our minds over snow!
I can remember one night, a pipe burst in our bathroom. Water was spewing out everywhere and it was chaos. I screamed for my husband and he quickly ran to turn the water off outside- meanwhile I'm making feeble attempts to stick my finger through the hole to try to stop the geyser erupting from it. The kids are screaming, the baby is crying, and of course the next morning we were supposed to take the children on an adventure to Busch Gardens. I'm seeing visions of thousands of dollars in repairs and literally imagining the worst case scenario. After things calmed down slightly, shop vac humming, I grabbed my camera and took a picture of the aftermath. It was almost hilarious at that point.
And if you're wondering, it was a fairly simple fix and we got it all cleaned up and in time to take the kids on their adventure. We did make an unexpected pit stop for a gallon of coffee though.
I have never seen a real sunflower field in person. I have seen patches of them grown, but nothing that even compares to this. Nothing. I remember coming around the bend in the road and tears pricked at my eyes. The most gorgeous sunflowers you've ever seen. As far as the eye could see. It was breathtaking. I can only imagine what the children thought when they saw it. I know what they said, but I bet inside they felt like it was magical. We had so much fun exploring the fields. They are so tall I felt like Alice in Wonderland! It was worth getting up at dark thirty for.
The field was planted by a man in memory of his mother. What a heartfelt tribute. I am so grateful for his work and dedication planting the field and I sure hope he does it again this year.
There's a quote by Dorthea Lange that says, "Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still" and that has always stuck with me. I know exactly what she means. You look at those pictures and they make you FEEL something. Each picture here I can recall where we were, who we are with, when it was, and what we were feeling. It brings back sights and smells...emotions. And that is magic. I am so glad I went through with this and I'm so glad that I now have these images to look back on and pass down to my children.
I still don't even know if these are my favorites. Some of the images I shot for this project are simply too personal for me to share with the world. And that's okay too. They are going into our family photo album for the year 2018 and that's what matters.
We had a lot of ups and downs this year, the good certainly outweighed the bad. One thing I still struggle with is the decision to put our 16/17 year old Pekingese down. He was a rescue and had been with me for 10 years- my sweet little buddy. He just came along for the ride where ever I took him! I certainly wish I would have snapped one last picture of him, but he was sick, he was in pain, and I wanted him at peace. I will always remember how he used to smile at me! I am forever grateful we found each other. He was just what I needed.
Since this project has come to a conclusion, I'm still sorting through and finding hidden gems along my journey that I missed. Or something that didn't stand out as "extraordinary" now seems perfect. I think maybe waiting to cull through and edit the pictures gives me a chance to marinate on them, or at least tell 2 different sides to the story. Editing the picture I loved the day I took it tells how I'm feeling about it that day, but going through 4 months later and looking at them shows how I feel looking back on the situation.
In the beginning it wasn't hard to remember to take a photo a day. I would say about 3 months in it got a little difficult. But when I realized I had forgotten, I quickly learned that I didn't ruin the whole freaking thing. A fellow photographer reminded me that this is MY project and I ALONE make the rules. That was the key to success. Giving myself grace for days that I had forgotten and having courage to go on shooting - not giving up or letting it go.
So what's next for me? The children have already asked if we are doing it this year. I think the commitment to another project is right around the corner. I haven't decided if it's going to be a photo a week, a photo a day, or something in between...but I'm sure it will be something.
If you'd like some help, feedback, or inspiration for your own 365 project, reach out to me. I'd love to chat with you and try to help you fill in some blanks. What are your goals for 2019?
Jess is a photographer serving families located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. She specializes in documentary and storytelling photography.
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