Hey there…whether you’re a curious bystander wondering how a Fort Campbell, Kentucky homecoming works, a fellow 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Screaming Eagle, or the person impatiently waiting for your Soldier to come home, I’m glad you ended up here. I hope this post helps ease some of your concerns or questions and satisfies your curiosity about a military homecoming. If I missed something, or you have a question, drop it in the comments so I can be sure to answer and add it to the post!
A quick note about me, I was an active-duty public affairs specialist in the U.S. Army for 9 years, and part of my job duties included photographing many deployment and welcome home ceremonies. I was with 1st Brigade Combat Team “Bastogne” and 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) while stationed at Fort Campbell. I have also covered many homecomings as a private photographer, so I’m very familiar with how the shows are run.
Well, the toughest part should be over, you’ve said see you later, Murphy’s Law is in full effect and you are counting down the days until your Soldier is home. I get it, I’ve been there, so what now? Well, the first question is- do you want a photographer at your homecoming? If yes, great! I’ve got some pointers. If not, no worries, hopefully I still answer your questions.
Many photographers book within weeks of a large unit deploying, I’ve had many clients book 6-8 months in advance! So that’s my first tip, if you know you want pictures, start looking and speaking with a photographer early. Most will only take 1-3 clients until they know what main bodies the service member is coming home on. It’s not to be mean, it just ensures we don’t double book and that we give you our full, undivided attention. I personally take 2 clients until I know better dates. Make sure when you are looking for a photographer that you look at their homecoming work. That hanger lighting can get the best of us sometimes, and it can be a different look compared to an outside session.
Also make sure you get a warm and fuzzy feeling with your photographer. This is so, so important, because military homecomings can be one of the most intimate moments. You haven’t seen your Soldier in so many months and this stranger will have a camera catching it all. Make sure you mesh!
Audra says, “I wanted someone to capture the moment I was back in my husband’s arms. This deployment was extremely hard, so I wanted pictures to remind us that we got through that! Plus who doesn’t love homecoming pictures. I was super grateful to have Sammie as my photographer! She kept me calm through the whole thing and I felt like we were friends the instant she walked in the door.”
Alex says she wanted a photographer to capture this important moment for her family. “It’s a day I will never forget and a day I want to share with my boys when they get older. I knew I would be too caught up in the moment to try and take photos myself. I had an amazing experience with Sammie as my homecoming photographer! It gave me someone to talk to, help chase around my boys, tell me what to expect, as well as take great pictures I will have forever.”
So here we are, you’re homecoming date. It’s most likely changed half a dozen times, moving up, getting pushed back later. That’s all super normal! I’ve never gotten a tentative homecoming date 6+ weeks before their arrival that stayed the same date. It’s the Army, so hurry up and wait is the motto often used to describe it all. Which also includes the recommended time of arrival at the hanger.
The FRG will tell you 2 hours. If this isn’t your first rodeo, you will probably get there somewhere around the 1 hour mark, and if it’s your first, you may feel like you need to be there 2+ hours beforehand. I personally arrive 1 hour, unless it’s been a difficult homecoming with a lot of changes and delays. How early you arrive is based on your comfort level, just make sure to keep your photographer in the loop!
Audra’s advice after experiencing her first homecoming? “I wish I didn’t get there as early as I did, due to all of the time changes; just breathe, everything is going to workout.”
So here we are, walking through that annoying round gate and into the hanger. You’ve got bleachers on either long side, with a large flag and podium at one end of the hanger, and on the other side is two huge, beautiful doors that will soon open, beckoning in your Soldier! Be sure to coordinate where you are meeting your photographer before the homecoming. These little details will help ease some of the controllable stressors of the day.
For those with children, Alex has a few pieces of advice. “If you have kids, definitely have at least one person there to help you. Whether it be family, a photographer, or friend. Having Sammie and my boss there helping chase down the boys helped so much! Also, just go with the flow. Even though planning everything is second nature, it’s less stress to just roll with the punches once you are at the hanger. Prepare outfits, signs, photographers, etc throughout the entire deployment. Waiting last minute can be stressful, especially because dates and times change so much. A big concern I had was missing the homecoming, so be in communication with your spouse as much as possible because the calls from the Army don’t always come like they are promised.”
Now that everyone is at the hanger…we wait! I love the waiting period, and use our time together to help you relax, chit chat about the days leading up to this moment, and how excited you are to be here. You may want to bring a light snack and drink for this time, especially if you have kids. The local AUSA chapter and other amazing organizations are really great about providing cookies, popcorn, soda and water. Don’t forget something to keep kids entertained and maybe a blanket or fan (depending on the season). The hanger currently does not have AC or heat, so keep that in mind for outfits too.
It’s your choice, but clients often make a sign or banner to have photos taken with, and I love it! Those often get tossed to the side in all the chaos afterwards, so don’t stress if you decide not to bring something. You’ll still have beautiful photos.
The Voice of the Eagle will make announcements about the flight, typically at 2 hours, 1 hour, 30 minutes and 10 minutes. At 10 minutes, we get to head outside to the gated off portion of the flightline. This is where the nerves hit an all time high, and it’s ok! Don’t feel awkward if those tears start rolling, it’s an emotional roller coaster while you are waiting. Once the plane lands, there’s what feels like an eternity stretching by as the band marches out, the Soldiers get directions on the plane and then finally…yes, finally…the Soldiers are getting off the plane!! I move with my clients, so if you want to shift and try to get a closer look, we absolutely can!
Once the Soldiers deplane, we head inside to wait just another moment for the commanding general (or person sent in his place) to say a few words no one remembers, and then yell those sweet little words…“OPEN THOSE DOORS!!” And everyone cheers, the band plays and in walk those dang boots you can’t wait to trip over by the front door.
At this point, the speaker keeps it short, we sing a few songs (because the Army loves to sing) and then you hear the best words of the entire thing “dismissed!” by the chalk commander. Cue mad dash into the center where everyone starts looking for their person. Again, try to coordinate a general area where your Soldier knows to head towards! This helps cut down on the confusion, and trust me…the more Soldiers coming home, the bigger the confusion. Don’t worry about me, I stick close to you until you find your Soldier, then I blend quietly into the background while you get that first embrace, that first kiss, and the whole world goes silent for a brief, beautiful moment. Because you did it. You survived. Your Soldier is home. And whatever else happens, the deployment is over.
You’ll get 15 minutes of family time to say hello. Normally I give the first few minutes to candid interactions-lots of hugs, kisses, the need to keep a hand on them at all times, because if you don’t it won’t feel real, all of that. I like to stay out of your way. I’ll pop in and out to grab a few posed, hey look at me photos, but my style is to let those natural moments occur.
Alex says, “I was scared my boys wouldn’t react well to my husband, but they remembered him and took up to him right away. It’s like he never left.”
Fifteen minutes will pass way quicker than you think, and the Soldiers will form back up to head to their unit area. There’s some inprocessing stuff they have to do, weapons turn-in, etc., which can take some time-depending on the unit. You’ll head out of the hanger, and pick up your Soldier at their unit. And that’s that!
I hope this helped give you an idea of what to picture, I hope Murphy’s Law isn’t kicking your butt too hard, and I hope your countdown goes as quickly as possible. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me! I don’t have to be your photographer either, I’m happy to help. There are so many nerves on this day-what if they don’t recognize me, what if they aren’t the same, what will they think when they see me, I can’t believe this day is here, etc. and it’s all normal! You aren’t alone. And you’ve got this! Happy homecoming!!