By JAN HOFFMAN
Published: November 27, 2009
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
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
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
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.
The Thigpens now live in North Carolina, where the captain teaches
aerospace studies. In the summer they visit Dayton, not least for
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."