The First Embrace
‘The First Embrace.’ The exact moment that keeps some of our bravest men and women alive when they are so far from home. I was so honored when Heather and Ryan asked me to be there to capture this moment for them.
Heather and Ryan have been a couple for over 10 years now, and were married in the summer of 2007. Only one month after being married, Ryan was deployed to Iraq, as part of the 2/24 battalion in the US Marine Corps. So often we focus on and applaud the strength of our men and women overseas, but I think it’s just as important to acknowledge the bravery, dedication and strength shown by those who are left waiting for them at home. Heather happens to be one of my closest friends, so I was able to see firsthand the difficulties and the triumphs that came with being the supportive partner at home.
After 11 long months, Ryan returned on the date that marked their one year anniversary. We waited in anticipation at the Allstate Arena outside of Chicago on August 16th, 2008. Heather and I made our way into a packed arena that was overflowing with an energy that would make an NFL team jealous. I sat down to take it all in and quietly noted that I was surrounded by incomplete families. Families missing a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a daughter or a son, a brother or a sister.... all about to see them for the first time in months. Every second that inched by, I realized how lucky I was to be included in such an intimate affair.
As the time grew closer, men and women were frequently checking their watches, children were frantically looking in all directions....and then we learned that one of their buses had broken down on the interstate. After another hour or so of waiting, it was announced that they had arrived. I took a seat on one of the benches and watched as families gathered around the sides of the arena. For the first time in three hours, everything fell silent, as rows of men and women in uniform marched to the center of the stadium. There they finally stood, in formation, as a short program went underway. As well intentioned as the program surely was, I’m certain it was almost completely ignored as families now focused solely on fulfilling their only goal: the first embrace. Once it was announced that the service members could break formation, all hell broke loose. Families scattered to find their loved ones. Being that they were all in the same uniform, there hundreds of them, and they hadn’t seen them in months, you’d think this would be quite a difficult task. But it wasn’t. In all directions around me there were people being reunited. I kept my attention on Heather. Standing near the edge of the massive crowd, with a sign that read “Cpl. Lockhart’s Wife”’. Once they caught sight of each other, Ryan began making his way to her. She seemed to be frozen stiff, but dropped the sign to the floor just before throwing their arms around each other. There were no words. Words could not have done the moment justice. Only a long embrace accompanied by tears. I’m mildly surprised that the pictures even turned out. My hands were shaking incredibly and tears were pouring from my eyes.
It was a very surreal world inside of that arena. Outside, cars sped by on the interstate as people went about their day to day business. Shopping, going to work, getting lunch, talking on their phones. It all seemed so insignificant in comparison to what was happening inside. Families became whole again. One of the most important moments of their lives had just happened, and pictures like these ones were taken.
A few months later Heather and Ryan would have their second wedding ceremony, where I would stand and give a speech commending them both for being so brave and strong and most importantly- so in love.
A million thank you’s to Heather and Ryan for sharing your timeless reunion with me. And thank you so much to all of our veterans, and to their loving families. May all of your stories end like this one.