Shanon Rudd had been hearing rumors about the big day for about a month. While she didn’t want to get too excited, she did start preparing.
She cleaned the house from top to bottom. She stocked the cabinets with her husband’s favorite foods. She purchased new outfits for her children and herself. She fluffed yellow ribbons and hung homemade signs – “Welcome Home” and “My Daddy, My Hero.” Everything needed to be just right. Her husband, Sgt. Joshua Rudd, was coming home after a year in Iraq.
A year of separation – marked by all too brief phone calls, e-mails and Skype; of avoiding news shows and sending care packages; of longing and fear – would soon end.
In a hot gym in July, hundreds of family members crowded together to welcome home soldiers from the 67th Signal Battalion from Ft. Gordon, Ga.
“I saw him, and my heart skipped a beat,” says Shanon of her first sighting of Josh. “I just kept my eye on him the whole time. You know he’s home, he’s safe.”
Then the moment came when families reunited. Kisses and long embraces were traded for the months of “miss yous” and “be safes.” “That’s my daddy” took the place of “where’s my daddy.” Lost moments – birthdays, holidays, everyday – were replaced with joy and relief.
Homecomings like this remain poignant and powerful even though they occur frequently and repeatedly across the country as thousands of military personnel arrive home from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Josh and Shanon and their two children, Maddie, 4, and Nathan, 2, were reunited in July. Since then they’ve had time to adjust, get to know one another again and find a rhythm in their routine together. Maddie no longer gets upset when her daddy goes to work, as she realizes he’ll be coming home again in the evening.
Shanon and Josh had some advantages, as this was Josh’s third deployment and their second deployment together. Shanon, who grew up with an Army father and do-it-all mother, had the support of her family in Lexington and the resources at Ft. Gordon. But she also had memories of the uneasy readjustment from Josh’s second deployment, during which he missed all of his baby daughter’s “firsts” and life at home had changed so drastically.
So this time when Josh returned, they took things slow. They didn’t force big celebrations, opting for quieter family gatherings. They gave each other space and relearned one another’s quirks.
And according to Angie Barton, Shanon’s mother, they let Josh set the pace. Angie understands the difficulties, as she raised four children while her own husband had a career in the military. Angie is a member of the Blue Star Mothers, an organization for mothers and mothers-in-law with children who serve or have served in the military.
She offered Shanon as much support as she could and is proud of her daughter and son-in-law.
Since Josh has chosen to make the Army his career, the Rudds know they will likely face future separations.
“It’s a hard life but a good life,” says Shanon. “You’d think it would get easier. You may know what to expect but it doesn’t get easier.”
Shanon is grateful for the support they’ve received from friends, family and the community. “We know people recognize our sacrifice,” she says.
Last Person to Hug
Air Force Staff Sgt. William “Brad” Filyaw headed to Iraq in May with the 20th Maintenance Operations Squadron from Shaw Air Force Base. He left his wife, Angela, to care for their children and home in Sumter. It was their first separation. They didn’t exactly know how it would go.
“I expected time to creep by,” says Angela. “But it’s flown by.”
Angela stayed busy. She cleared a half-acre lot at the couple’s home, learned to use a chainsaw, fixed outlets, pressure-washed the house and installed flood lights. All the things Brad would have done, she learned to do.
“I’ve been playing man and woman,” says Angela, laughing. “He’s been over there doing what he has to do.”
Frequent phone calls and e-mails kept the couple connected. Yet there is no way to make up for missing the little pleasures of home.
Foremost, I miss my family and being able to do the small things like having barbecues, riding the four-wheelers, going to the races and just hanging out around the house, Brad wrote in an e-mail from Iraq.
Angela and Brad weren’t sure what to expect when he arrived home in mid-October. Angela had heard from other military wives to expect him not to know what’s going on, but she couldn’t imagine the family not falling back into place.
Brad understood his family had learned a lot and done a lot in his absence and hoped for a smooth transition back to a cohesive unit.
Yet it is the homecoming Brad and Angela most anticipated.
I would imagine there will be people, hugs, tears, food and beer, or at least that’s what I’m hoping for, wrote Brad. First thing I intend to do is kiss my wife and hug my kids. After that, I look forward to catfish fillets and Crown Royal by a bonfire.
Angela had decided she would be the last person her husband hugged when they reunited, because she thought she wouldn’t want to let him go, she says.
“I was so scared,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
When Brad stepped off the plane, two things caught Angela off guard. She cried harder than she expected. And Brad left with a clean-shaven head and returned with a head full of curls.
“I liked it, but it threw me for a loop,” she says, laughing.
Angela Filyaw and her son welcome her husband Brad home.
True to her word, Angela was the last person to hug Brad when he got off the plane. Eventually, she let him go long enough to enjoy a big homecoming party. Only a few hours after stepping back onto South Carolina soil, Brad was in his newly cleared backyard, eating catfish and toasting family.
“Things are back to normal,” says Angela. “It’s like we’ve never skipped a beat. I never thought we’d get back into a routine so easily.”
Letting go can be hard for anyone faced with a long-term separation. It can be even more difficult when a young child is involved.
Staff Sgt. Tara Washington was deployed with the Air National Guard, 169th Fighter Wing, from McEntire Joint National Guard Base this summer to support the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Iraq.
Though excited and proud to be deployed to do her job and serve the country overseas, Tara also had to say goodbye to her husband, Alexander, and 2-year-old daughter.
There was no way to explain to her little girl what was going on.
“All they register is that you aren’t there,” says Tara. “When I had to walk away and get on the plane, it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.”
Tara’s deployment was fairly short – almost four months. When it was time to return home, it simply couldn’t come fast enough for her.
The journey home felt like a never-ending day. The plane hopscotched from Balad, Iraq, to Germany, north to Iceland, across the Atlantic to Maine, then south to Baltimore and finally to South Carolina. Anxious to be home, Tara calmed herself knowing she would soon see her family and hold her child.
Her husband met her at the homecoming so they could spend a few hours of alone time together before the all-day celebration of reuniting with family.
“I ran to him, and it was like seeing him for the first time,” says Tara. “It was just the best feeling.”
Alexander drove Tara to her in-laws where their young daughter was waiting. When Tara saw her little girl standing on the porch, she jumped from the car, maybe before it was even stopped, she says. The refrain of “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy” was the best homecoming gift she could imagine. Hugs and kisses continued most of the day as
Tara savored home-cooked red rice, sausage and shrimp.
“By far the best part,” she says of the homecoming, “was seeing my husband’s face and seeing my daughter, seeing them smile.”
Anna Bigham naturally worried about her little brother, Mills.
Despite his training as a United States Marine, Anna knew anything could happen during his two deployments in Iraq.
Weeks would go by without word from him. She hoped for phone calls, for e-mails. Sometimes they came. Often they didn’t.
“I was hoping and praying and having faith that he and the rest of his Marine buddies would be okay,” remembers Anna. “I wondered where he was, if he was safe.”
Eventually, Mills made it home safely from both his deployments. Joyous relatives and friends, happy for his safe return and excited for his future, were waiting for him.
His commitment to the military over, Mills was honorably discharged and moved back to Columbia, his and Anna’s hometown.
Cpl. Mills Bingham and sister Anna
“It was exciting again,” says Anna. “I was looking forward to having him near me.”
Unfortunately, the transition to civilian life did not go smoothly for Mills. He was unable to hold down a job. He didn’t want to be around people or venture out in the daytime.
Mills had physically made it through the war. He lived everyday, however, with the lasting memories of combat. Like many other combat veterans, he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Anna knew her brother needed help. She invited him to move in with her. She tried to help him get back on track with life. She worked to get him mental health treatment. Yet, she couldn’t find the kind of intense, long-term help her brother needed, she says.
On Oct. 19, 2009, Mills Bigham – a son, a brother, a friend, a veteran – committed suicide.
“After he died, I knew I would do something,” says Anna.
At a time when she could have succumbed to her own grief and despair, Anna focused her energy on helping others.
She founded Hidden Wounds, a nonprofit organization that provides peace of mind and comfort for military personnel suffering from military or combat stress injuries such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and other psychological post war challenges.
Hidden Wounds, based in Columbia, works with combat veterans offering counseling and support. Anna also hopes the organization will raise awareness of the alarming rate of suicide among veterans and fight the stigma military personnel may face when seeking psychological help.
Anna encourages individuals and families to become involved with Hidden Wounds while they or their loved ones are still actively serving in the military.
Says Anna, “It’s important to get involved and learn about the hidden wounds of war and the resources available while they are going through the trauma and experiencing it.”
Almost one year to the day of her brother’s suicide, Anna offered these words at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Closing Remembrance Ceremony: “I’ve learned that the best way for me to heal is to talk about my experience and brother, Mills, to all who will listen. I’ve made it my privilege to honor the many who have served our nation while creating a legacy for Marine Corporal Mills Palmer Bigham.”
For more information about Hidden Wounds, call (803) 403-8460, or visit hiddenwounds.org.
Other resources for returning military personnel and families
- Midlands Chapter of the Blue Star Families and Blue Star Mothers of America, bluestarmotherssc.com
- Military One Source, militaryonesource.com
- William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center, columbiasc.va.gov