September 16, 2022
September 5, 2022. It was a sunny, gorgeous day. Perfect for a homecoming. Let me tell you more about it, below.
When I am asked what my favorite subject to photograph is, I often say homecomings. For many, this brings up thoughts of high school dances and parades, but that’s not what I meant. I don’t think military homecomings are the first thing to come to mind for most – but they should. The amount of planning, anticipation and emotion that goes into a military homecoming is astounding, and every homecoming I witness, I leave a changed person.
Often times, these men and women have been gone for months – sometimes upwards of six months to a year. This is something my family is all too familiar with. My dad is retired career Army Colonel and both my sisters married into the Armed Forces. My brother-in-law was gone for a whole year with the Army, and my other brother-in-law’s longest deployment set a record at the time with the Navy – ten months without a port call (stopping at allied ports for supplies, R&R, etc.). I have been to my fair share of homecomings and instead of becoming immune to the emotions that they bring, I feel them more strongly every new time.
All of this was true for VFA-11’s homecoming on Labor Day weekend, 2022. I had been planning with sweet spouse, Danielle, for months. At this point, her husband’s homecoming was extended an additional six months from the original date. She would call or text me every few months to let me know that it was going to pushed out again, and I told her to hang in there and that I was ready for whenever the time came.
In a way, homecomings are similar to newborns. You can loosely plan a time frame, but they are coming at their own schedule. You’re almost on-call for whenever they are ready! Another similarity is that I hardly even have to pose the families at both a newborn and a homecoming. The emotion, the movement and the connection is so natural. I am just there to witness and document. But more on that later.
I woke up early Labor Day to drive to Virginia Beach. The day had come. They had made it. They were coming home and it seemed like this time, it was for real. I was greeted by a gorgeous sunrise as I left my in-law’s house at the lake where we had been celebrating the holiday weekend. I stopped to take a photo (naturally) and took it as an omen that this would be a good, nay, a great day! And it was.
One hour, 45 minutes later I was in Virginia Beach, and after being spooked by a very excited Danielle popping up next to my car window, I hopped in her car and we headed to the hangar.
Danielle and the other spouses putzed around the hangar, nervously setting up snacks, gifts, and decorations for their significant others, who had been eating nothing but ship galley food for nearly 277 days. At this point, the hangar begins to fill up with spouses, children, parents, extended family members, news media, and naval support staff. We take time to photograph Danielle with her fellow spouses, who have become a family during deployment. The spouses recognize their leadership, the wives of the squadron’s Commanding Officer (CO) and Executive Officer (XO), who guided these families through the many extensions of this deployment. For several of these families, this is their first deployment, and having a strong support system is vital to making through the other side.
The hardest thing for me to see is the children. All it takes is overhearing one ask “how any more minutes till Daddy comes back?” and your heart just breaks. They are all so excited and well-behaved playing with each other in the hangar – they too have formed their own little support system to make it through.
When word comes that the jets have taken off from the ship, everyone rushes to the opening of the hangar. It will still be another 30 minutes before we even see them, but after nine months away, 30 minutes is nothing. So we wait and chat, wait and chat. People are getting restless and then finally, you hear it – off in the distance a slight roar. That roar picks up and eventually you can see it, a small flock of gray birds flying in perfect formation towards us. But they’re not birds, they’re the Red Rippers.
The jets roar as they fly over the group assembled outside. American flags wave, people cheer and clap, tears are shed. In my opinion, this moment when the jets are flying over you is the greatest part of the entire thing. After months of anticipation, they’re here, so close you can almost see them in the cockpit. They’re not turning back – no more extensions or changes to the schedule. This is really it.
It’s another 30 minutes as they re-approach the runway in smaller groups, land, taxi in, and sign off with their ground crew. The pilots all huddle up and walk down the runway together. The CO gives the signal and the families are let loose. Children start sprinting to their dads. Wives running behind them. They all meet in the middle with hugs and kisses. It is a blurry mix of roses, American flags, and cameras.
At this point, I like to give the couple a few moments to just be together. I observe from a distance and capture their reunion. Afterwards there will be time for photos by the jet and in front of the big American flag, but this the moment I’m really here to capture.
I was exhausted after this homecoming. I cried a lot, despite hardly even knowing these families. Homecomings are a rush of emotions that hit you slowly throughout different points of the morning, but then all of a sudden in a one big rush. The adrenaline mixed with the feelings will really drain a girl!
I am so happy for Danielle and Tim, the families of the Red Rippers, and the families of the USS Truman, which returned home one week later. I am thankful that I have never had to deal with a spouse away on deployment, but I have borne witness to my sisters and their dear friends doing so, and I can empathize.
If my recap of the day didn’t have you grabbing for the tissues, (let me assure you that writing this had me in the weepy feels), then here is a video recap of the day set to what I think needs to be the o-fficial anthem of the military spouse, Lady Gaga’s Hold My Hand, from the incredible sequel to an incredible film, Top Gun Maverick.
So welcome, home VFA-11 and thank you for service (both the families at home and the pilots and sailors away!). Please show them some love in the comments.
Are you planning a military homecoming? I would love to be considered for your portraits. Please reach out, here!
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From the tiniest additions to the biggest of milestones, I'll capture timeless memories that your family will cherish for years to come.
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Jacqueline Burns is a milestone and family portrait photographer based in Richmond, Virginia. Inspired by the beauty and timelessness of film, Jacqueline captures families in their natural element, creating memories to be enjoyed for years to come.