For years, Ivan Ingraham’s family waited for his return. Now, he waits for his daughter.

‘Welcome Home’–For Years His Family Waited for His Return. Now, He Waits for His Daughter.

My wife and I sit in a large auditorium in El Paso, Texas, waiting in anticipation, along with other families, for our daughter’s return from deployment. Upbeat music fills the air and the feeling in the assembled crowd is of a group of fans awaiting a rock band to take the stage. This isn’t far off. The main characters are our own family members—the balloons, signs, and flowers overt displays of affection marking the safe return of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, daughters and sons.

I watch young children playing and dancing to the music. Each is more interested in the other kids than in sitting patiently next to their nervous parents. Children have an innate ability to find fun in anything, even if it’s just running around together, or making up some game whose rules don’t matter. I glance at young mothers holding very small babies, likely for the first introduction to their fathers since deploying nine months earlier.

Ivan Ingraham watches as his daughter runs into her mother’s arms.

Ivan Ingraham watches as his daughter runs into her mother’s arms. Photo courtesy of the author.

Through a side door, a crowd of soldiers is seen forming up, faceless in an amoebic mob dressed in MultiCam utilities, yet comprised of individuals, each with their own experiences and desires. The air comes alive with anxious expectation, but, like most things in the military, this prolongs the waiting for their arrival. Hurry up and wait goes both ways.

In my former life as a United States Marine, I spent much of my 24-year career leaving and returning home from deployments, most of them combat deployments.

Today is different. For the first time, I am on the other side of this formality, this rite, and thus the tradition continues.

As I wait, I recall my own anxiety at reuniting with my family, wondering how they had fared during my absence and how we would reintegrate. Combat made that anxiety worse since I couldn’t just leave the experience of fear and violence behind me as I moved to meet them. Nor could they understand what I had experienced, and it was unfair to hold them hostage to my own side of the deployment when all they really wanted was for me to return.

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It is trite—and also untrue—that coming home is easier in peacetime than following a combat rotation. It’s hard no matter what—and regardless how many times you do it. War, I think, just makes it more complicated. Especially when not everyone makes it home.

The first in-person exchanges with families of the fallen were never anything I could prepare for, even if I’d spoken to them over the phone. During these homecomings, I arrived to both my family and families for whom there would be no reunion. Yet they’d come anyway, to meet the men and women who’d served alongside their loved one, to seek solace, to find closure, though these things are impossible.

Sometimes, these homecomings were excruciating, like the time a former commander cheerily remarked to the parents of a fallen Marine, “I’m sure you’re happy to have him home.”

“My son was killed,” one of the parents responded. “We’re here to see his friends and collect his stuff.”

Deployments, even the most successful ones, are hard for everyone—servicemembers and the ones they leave behind. The experiences are just different sides of the same coin.

For years, Ivan Ingraham’s family waited for his return. Now, he waits for his daughter.

For years, Ivan Ingraham’s family waited for his return. Now, he waits for his daughter. Photo courtesy of the author.

Those of us who deploy must reintegrate into a world that has continued without us in it. Upon our return, life—and often those we love—has changed, shifted. We have changed, too. We have spent months living in an artificial environment, and then suddenly, we are home. We are strangers, and we must adapt and reengage.

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Of course, not everyone can, or does. Most who deploy are young. Many are single. They return as they departed: alone, except perhaps for those they live alongside in the barracks. For them, there is no welcoming committee. Some succumb to alcoholism, alienation, and depression. It is no surprise to me that those who serve are more likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts. Few of us who have served are untouched by these tragedies, some that occur during wartime and some months and years after they return home.

Here in this auditorium, we are all linked by our shared experiences, by our burgeoning anticipation of seeing the faces of our loved ones. Yet I know that beyond these walls and this city is an ever-widening gap between those who serve and those who don’t, between families who feel the strain of their loved ones’ absence and those who don’t.

“It is trite—and also untrue—that coming home is easier in peacetime than following a combat rotation. It’s hard no matter what,” writes Ivan Ingraham.Photo courtesy of the author.

“It is trite—and also untrue—that coming home is easier in peacetime than following a combat rotation. It’s hard no matter what,” writes Ivan Ingraham.
Photo courtesy of the author.

The end of the forever wars has only exacerbated this divide. Yet servicemembers continue to deploy around the world, including to places where there is a very real danger of being killed or wounded at any time.

As I wait, I am relieved to know I will see my daughter. I know how lucky I am.

An announcement shakes me from my thoughts. In 10 minutes, the unit will come inside. Parents collect their children to make room for the unit and clear the large open space in front of a semicircle of bleachers. People stand, gripping their signs, holding hands a little tighter, ubiquitous cell phones set for videos and photos.

At last, the doors open.

I can feel the collective sigh of relief that takes the form of cheering as the unit marches in. After a few suitable lines of pomp and circumstance from the unit commander, our daughter is released.

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She finds us in the crowd and runs into her mother’s arms. They embrace tearfully, and I capture it all on camera.

Before I walk to greet her, I survey the room one more time.

I feel commonality with these soldiers in a way I hadn’t expected. I also feel like I haven’t been here before, and greeting my own soldier takes on a new importance.

Welcome home.


This War Horse reflection was written by Ivan Ingraham, edited by Kristin Davis, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

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Ivan F. Ingraham

Ivan F. Ingraham is a speaker, storyteller, and veteran. He served for 24 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a special operations officer.

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