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Old 11-29-2009, 09:30 AM
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Question War’s Other Enduring Videos

War’s Other Enduring Videos
EARLIER this month at the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Military Appreciation game, Brandon Becar, 11, and relatives proudly stood on the football field in front of 45,000 people. The stadium’s giant video screen flashed a prerecorded greeting from his father, stationed in Iraq. Brandon grinned and flexed his muscle.

Suddenly the crowd roared. Brandon turned, bewildered. Dashing across the field toward him came a figure in fatigues: Maj. Kevin Becar, surprising his son with an early two-week leave. “We both totally zoned out where we were,” Major Becar recalled. “He was just bawling, and we melted into each others’ arms.”

Read this and weep. Go ahead. It’s that season. And these surprise military homecoming tales are the definition of heartwarming.

But view ’em — as have millions through TV news broadcasts, YouTube and countless other Web sites — and just blubber:

A 2-year-old opens the door to a costumed Santa. He gives her M&M’s and, gingerly, she hugs him. Then her stunned mother lets loose a yelp — “It’s Daddy!” — home six weeks early from Afghanistan. And while Mommy smooches Santa, thumping his chest (“You stinker!” “This is the best Christmas ever!”), the child looks quizzical. “Da-dee?”

In recent years, the popularity of surprise soldier homecomings, videotaped for posterity, has grown: dozens of such moments have been posted on the Internet. Fathers in fatigues — it’s almost always fathers — surprise children in classrooms, at a Valentine’s Day dance, popping out of a gift-wrapped box at a school assembly. Occasionally, as in a Veterans Day ceremony at a Tennessee elementary school, the local TV news lies in wait.

Network anchors sniffle. Public relations people beam. Parents describe unparalleled elation. But as these surprise reunions become embedded as this generation’s narrative of the returning vet, psychologists and others who work with military families question whether these surprise visits best serve the children themselves. Debates on blogs, like Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, ask, Do these videos celebrate or exploit?

“Some people think it’s totally fine,” said Lillian Connolly, a mother of four who leads support groups for military families in Brockton, Mass. “But I recommend to families not to surprise children. The child has been without a parent for so long. The child can hold anger. You never know how they’re going to react.”

Mrs. Connolly, whose husband is on his third deployment in Iraq for the Army Reserve, added: “And in front of the media? I don’t think it’s fair.”
Candace Weir disagrees. She helped engineer a surprise for her daughters this month, dropping them with her mother for a weekend and driving to Fort Campbell, Ky., to pick up her husband, Specialist Chris Weir, just returned from Iraq.

That Monday morning, Kylee, 6, and Ashlyn, 4, attended an early Veterans Day assembly at Oak Grove Elementary School in Cleveland, Tenn. Who should stride in? The girls were floored — and then over the moon.

Months before, to prepare them for his mid-deployment visit, Mrs. Weir tried the calendar countdown. But the military could only give a two-week estimate of his date. “It was an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. “One day he was coming home — and the next he wasn’t.” The girls’ anxiety was particularly acute because their uncle died in Iraq in 2006; their father had volunteered to complete his brother’s service.

“My kids were upset and crying and thought Daddy was supposed to be home by now,” Mrs. Weir said. “The surprise thing worked better. And they really loved it.”

The adulation from classmates at these special moments can be reparative, parents say. Peers may finally empathize with the turmoil of a child whose parent is deployed. How bad could a little glory be?

“Nobody paid attention to me, it was all about Hannah,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Myers, of the video in June that vaulted onto national broadcasts showing the reaction of his 10-year-old — freeze-frame expressions ranging from incredulity to ecstatic relief — when he walked into her Randolph Elementary School class at Universal City, Tex.

Hannah still Googles her name to read new posts, he said, “and to check what ranking she is on the viewings at YouTube.”

FOR viewers, these moments have a voyeuristic magnetism. They are mini-dramas, representing the anxiety of the ultimate parent-child separation, with a radiant resolution. Institutions that facilitate them can’t help but benefit from the emotional spillover.

Chief among them: the military. Jon Myatt, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Military Affairs, said those called up — doctors, butchers, accountants like Major Becar — live in communities where people may not understand military families’ ordeal. These reunions and their publicity give a window into their lives. “You don’t get that on the nightly news very much,” Mr. Myatt added.

And while opposition to the Vietnam War corroded the reception of those veterans, he said, the intimacy of these public reunions helps viewers separate their feelings about current wars from the troops themselves:

“Everyone was touched by this moment,” he said, “and that’s a wonderful outcome.”

Still, he said, surprises with younger children work best: “They’re not as self-conscious when it comes to crying and hugging their father.

Teenagers are worried about their peers.”

The military finds a comfortable home for such reunions with the National Football League. This year, the Green Bay Packers staged a surprise reunion for a family at the Cincinnati Bengals game. During the Denver Broncos’ Thanksgiving Day game with the New York Giants, the team surprised three families with satellite feeds from Iraq.

Football benefits from this relationship, too. Jacksonville is a big military town. The Jaguars, who struggle to fill their stadium, sold well for the Military Appreciation game, during which they reunited the Becars.

But these reunions happen in more modest venues, too. The Dayton Dragons, a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, honor a family once a month by showing a recorded message on its video screen from a deployed relative.

That’s what happened to Kim Thigpen and her boys, Jacob, 11, and Caleb, 5, two years ago.

The Dragons announced the boys’ father would speak from a satellite feed. Mrs. Thigpen, who knew her husband was due home soon, was relieved: she hadn’t heard from him in a week. The boys looked thrilled.

They hadn’t set eyes on him in four months.

In fact, Captain Jim Thigpen had recorded the “live feed” that morning — in Dayton. He arrived a few days earlier and was sequestered at a hotel.

On the giant screen, the satellite feed began to break up: “I’m not getting anything,” Captain Thigpen muttered, seemingly, to off-screen
technicians, as his family and 8,000 strangers listened in. The boys appeared heartsick.

Cue the power chords of Daughtry’s hit, “Home.” An announcer booms, “Laaaadies and gentlemen, please welcome direct from his deployment in Iraq: Captain Jiiiiim Thigpen!”

Eric Deutsch, executive vice president of the Dragons, recounted: “The crowds get it before they do, and the standing ‘O’ continues, and the wives were crying and, oh my gosh!”

Mrs. Thigpen spun around and saw her husband running from the dugout, waving red roses. Momentarily forgetting her boys, she raced to embrace him.

“It put in perspective everything you’re enjoying about baseball and time with your family — and the sacrifice these people make,” Mr. Deutsch said.

The Thigpens now live in North Carolina, where the captain teaches aerospace studies. In the summer they visit Dayton, not least for Dragons games.

In retrospect, Mrs. Thigpen said recently, they wouldn’t have changed a thing. Despite the stress of not hearing from him. Despite her realization, as she emerged from that delirious embrace, that the man had been safe in Dayton for three days, waiting for the Sunday surprise. “He said, ‘You’re not going to be mad, are you?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not mad right now!’ ”

The experience remains, she said, a highlight of their lives.

The veteran’s homecoming is such a potent milestone that it’s been a theme in books, paintings and film — “The Odyssey,” Norman Rockwell’s “Homecoming G.I.,” William Wyler’s “Best Years of Our Lives.” Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at West Point, viewed some reunion videos and noted that when some of the young children peered uncomprehendingly at a man in a uniform running toward them, she was reminded of Hector’s return to Troy in “The Iliad”: his young son “doesn’t recognize his father because he is still wearing armor.”

FOR centuries, whatever unfolded during those reunions — children shrieking with joy or clinging to their mothers’ knees — took place in privacy. Today, because of the orchestration and omnipresent cameras, the “surprise” homecomings make viewers essential to the reunion itself, much like reality TV shows. But what happens after the cameras are turned off?

That’s when the complex adjustment for soldier and family begins. “The expectation is that it will be wonderful and happy and we hope so,” said Mark Pisano, a school psychologist at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

“But sometimes, all he wants to do is sleep, because he has been sleeping in a hole in the desert for weeks,” he said. “That is understandable but hurtful.”

For children, he added, mid-deployment visits can be notoriously rough, because in a short period they are whipsawed between the euphoria of reunion and the anguish of departure. In workshops, he advises families to prepare their children. Minimize surprises.

Last month, Lillian Connolly’s husband returned for a mid-deployment visit. Staff Sergeant Joseph Connolly called from the airport; the plane had landed early. “I told him, ‘I don’t like to be surprised!’ ” Mrs. Connolly said.

“ ‘You have to wait until I shower and wear the outfit I planned.’ He has me waiting a year, does he not? Well, he can wait 20 minutes.”

The deployments don’t get easier: “Every time my boys get off Skype with him, their eyes are full of water.”

Major Becar, home for a 14-day visit, stayed hidden at a friend’s home for a few days until he could surprise his son at the Jaguars’ game.

“I had no idea the effect it would have on everyone else,” he said of the reunion. The V.I.P. treatment, appearances on a morning TV show and sports talk radio. “It shows how patriotic everyone is and wants to see good news,” Major Becar said.

Reached 48 hours before returning to Iraq, Major Becar said Brandon’s school excused him to stay with his father throughout the visit. “I’ve been with him 24/7.”

He lowered his voice; Brandon was nearby. “The last couple of days as he looks at me, I know he’s thinking about me leaving. He’s starting to act differently.” The major began choking up. “It just kills me to think how tough this is for him.”

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