(This post was originally published on May 23, 2013)
On Memorial Day, we honor the brave men and women in our nation’s military for their dedication, courage and sacrifice. We also acknowledge the fortitude of their families as they wait for the safe return of their loved ones.
Lance Cpl. Stephen Stewart, known on Flickr as STStewart1, is a combat correspondent for the U.S. Marine Corps and recognizes their commitment often. One of the most powerful moments he captures are military homecomings.
“Words can’t even describe the emotion that’s in the air,” Stephen says in the accompanying video. “People are crying; they’re hugging; they’re laughing because you’re seeing someone for the first time in however long. It’s incredible.”
Deployments generally last between four months and a year.
“The Marines that I talk to like going on deployment,” Stephen says. “They do it first and foremost to protect and defend their country. But part of the reason they join is the amount of knowledge and experience they gain while deployed. It just makes them a better Marine.”
Naturally while they’re away, many Marines are acutely aware they’re missing important events back at home making the separation even more difficult.
“I know a lance corporal that deployed with the first Marine division out of Camp Pendleton to Afghanistan,” Stephen says. “He had just been married and during the deployment he got the phone call saying he was going to be a dad. Luckily he was back by the time his daughter was born, but getting that phone call must have been hard. It just makes getting back home even more important.”
The homecoming ceremony itself is brief, but the wait for families can be very long. Families are given an approximate time for when their loved ones will return, but Stephen says that time will jump about four hours in either direction.
“It can be very frustrating for those waiting,” says Stephen. “I’ve been to returns at four o’clock in the morning that were supposed to happen a ten o’clock the night before. But the families are up all night, you can see it in their eyes that they’re not going to sleep until they see their loved ones.”
The excitement begins when the Marines arrive on site and line up into formation. This can be the most excruciating part for families as the Marines are lined up fairly close to them – nearly 50 yards away – but can’t run to them. The Marines cannot break formation until they’re officially dismissed, leaving their loved ones to point and wave, take pictures and wait. When the final sign to break formation is given, Stephen says the air is explosive.
“Once the commanding officer says, ‘Marines, fall out’,” Stephen says. “Sweet, emotional chaos breaks loose. The two groups collide and embrace each other for the first time. It’s huge and exciting. Everything from crying to screaming to laughing, hugging and kissing happens all at once.”
The moment that resonates with Stephen the most is the emotional homecoming of Staff Sergeant Folk, a crewmaster with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, who spent nine months in Afghanistan.
“Sgt. Folk saw his two kids and just dropped to his knees immediately, right when they reached him,” Stephen recalls. “He grabbed them and embraced them… you could just tell it was very emotional, especially for those kids.”
Stephen says in every single picture, it’s very easy to understand the sacrifice military families make everyday. While the separation is hard on those serving abroad, the fear of the unknown is just as difficult for loved ones back home.
“The sacrifice we make as military members is huge, but the sacrifice our families make to support our decision to join the military is much greater,” Stephen says. “We are the ones to choose to volunteer and go overseas, they did not. Our families are forced to live with our decision and in the process give us unconditional love and support — it’s huge.”
Stephen loves his job because he takes photos and writes stories so families know what their loved ones are doing. But with homecomings, specifically, he feels it reminds us all why military members do what they do.
“We serve for our country but at the very core we do it for our families too,” Stephen says, “After a long deployment and seeing the joy on their faces… it’s a beautiful moment that means so much.”
Visit Stephen’s photostream for more of his photography.
Check out the United States Marine Corps Official Page to see their photography.
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