NEWS | Feb. 19, 2016

Message from home

By Staff Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida Colorado National Guard

CENTENNIAL, Colo. – For centuries, Soldiers far from home have been reciving letters from loved ones, but today, pen and paper are particularly irrelevant with technology so predominately at one's fingertips.

A few weeks after arriving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in December 2014, Daniel, a specialist in the 193rd Military Police Battalion, Colorado Army National Guard, received an instant message.

"Give me a ring. Everything is OK, but we need to talk," it read.

It was from his girlfriend Liz back home in Colorado.

First contact

He was getting ready for work that morning and replied, "I'll call you as soon as I can."

Then he got picture of a pregnancy test.

"I made a morale call," he said.

He buzzed into Fort Polk, Louisiana, which then routed the call to Liz in Colorado.

Her voice was calm and flat.

He said, "Are you sure about this?"

"I've been doing the tests and the results are all the same," she replied.

They were able to talk for a few more minutes, but Daniel had a job to do. Soldiers weren't allowed to have phones where he worked and everyone was forming up for duty. The mission had to go on.

Things may have been different that day if Daniel had chosen to share his news, but it wasn't the right time.

"I was shocked," he said. "I was a cocktail of emotion: excitement, anxiety – and a lot of uncertainty."

So many questions. Would he be allowed to come home? Would he be able to continue the relationship? Would things be the same as before?

"So many thoughts hit me so quickly, I guess I overwhelmed myself," Daniel said.

It took a week for him to finally share his news. "I had to vent," he said.  "I had to get it out."

He went to one of his most trusted buddies and asked him to keep it between them.

Sharing

"I tried to keep in touch with Liz as much as possible," he said. "Once we had a due date I knew it was safe to share with others."

It was about that time that Liz reached out to the Colorado National Guard Family Readiness Group, which provides support to Soldiers families throughout deployments.

"We had seven or eight pregnant wives this time, so we, the FRG, set up a baby shower for expectant mothers during their husband's deployment," said Jennie Zambo, Northern Colorado family assistant specialist.

Daniel then notified his unit.

"I made a morale call to my parents and asked them to put it on speaker. 'Hey guys I got something to tell you,'" he said.

Daniel's mom had already guessed the news. Liz had visited Daniel's family a few times after he left and they picked up on things that just seemed different.

"Liz wasn't showing yet, so it must have been that motherly instinct," Daniel said.

Plans change

He had eight days of leave that he planned to use in June 2015. He and Liz had previously planned to meet in Florida, but because of the circumstances, Daniel met her at home, instead.

"Thankfully I had bought a townhome before I left so we'd be able to convert our office space into a nursery," Daniel said.

He discussed changing his leave, but the unit's dates were locked.

"I wanted to save my leave for the birth, but I wasn't able to," he said. "At least I was there to help set up the nursery."

He later discovered that he wasn't eligible for paternity leave because he and Liz and weren't married.

"Trying to be optimistic, I didn't think this would be a problem," he said. "We thought the unit would be getting back at the end of August, right about the time of the due date, so I was hoping maybe the baby would be late."

Daniel was still in GTMO, still no return date, when he got a message that said, "Don't worry everything is OK, but we're going to the hospital."

The previous day, three weeks from her due date of August 24, Liz had a doctor's appointment and everything was on track.

"I was thinking it was a false alarm," he said, shaking his head.

The messages came hours apart, so the new baby's shock and awe campaign served only to increase Daniel's anxiety.

"Nope, looks like we're having a baby."

Baby time

Daniel went to the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Center at GTMO to use his cell phone.

"I was able to use Facetime during the birth so I was kind of there, but it's not the same," he said.

His family took Liz's phone into the maternity room so he could be as close as possible without actually being there.

"All around me people are playing games and doing other morale stuff, and here I am glued to my phone," he said. "I was trying to be encouraging saying 'push' and other things that fathers say, but it was very awkward. People were looking at me."

Then the mood changed. Liz needed an emergency caesarian section.

"Suddenly I'm staring at the ceiling," he said. "I could hear some of what was happening, but my family wasn't allowed to take the phone with them, so it's sitting on a table somewhere and I'm talking to myself now."

Daniel started thinking the worst, still staring at the blank ceiling on his phone screen while troops all around him played pingpong.

"My mom finally picked up the phone and told me to take a break, get some fresh air," he said.

Reluctant to do so, he stepped out for a few minutes then called back.

A bit later he got word that Liz and his baby girl Madalynn were just fine. Everything was going to be OK.

"I finally got to see my baby all bundled up with Liz a few hours later," he said. "I felt super relieved. Finally, the weight on my shoulders was gone, the anxiety was gone. … I felt good."

His unit let him take the next day off so he could talk with Liz.

"Over the next few weeks we tried to talk as much as possible and started to make plans for what would happen when I returned," he said. "Things started getting back to normal for me, and my job still had to be done."

Daniel got back to his daily routine: going to the gym after work and trying to focus on the tasks his job demanded.

"By now everyone knew, everyone was asking, everyone wanted to know what was going on at home," he said.

Then a few weeks later, their replacements arrived.

"That was a good day because I knew I was one step closer to going home – and I knew that would be soon," he said.

Homecoming

Four weeks later, the MPs landed in Denver.

"Everything was very real … seeing the airport and knowing that we were one step closer …" he said.

Daniel's apprehension turned toward excitement as he began counting down hours and minutes rather than days.

Once the MPs got to the base, time raced by. There was a masterful team effort getting all their bags unloaded and there were no complaints, Daniel said. The only thing between the Soldiers and their families was a formal 30-minute welcome-home ceremony.

"Everyone was asking me, 'How do you feel? Are you nervous?'" said Daniel. "I think they were more excited for me than I was."

On Sept. 5, 2015, Daniel and the rest of his unit marched into Hanger 909 at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado.

"Once the hanger doors opened – man it was a packed house!" he said. "We were supposed to march in professionally and stand at attention, but I couldn't help but try to look for my family. There were just so many distractions!"

The Soldiers got their kudos and welcome home from Colorado National Guard leaders, then finally … dismissed.

"Everyone just scattered," said Daniel. "People were going every which way. It was deliberate chaos."

He then caught a glimpse of his mother holding a big sign.

"I fought my way through the crowd toward them and there was Liz," he said.  

Liz was holding Madalynn dressed in little Army fatigues. She was only a month old.

"She was so small and sleeping peacefully," said Daniel.

After giving Liz a kiss he was finally going to hold his daughter for the first time.

"There was so much pressure because everyone was watching and I never really held a baby before. I had no idea what I was doing," he said.

"Liz had to kind of position me and Madalynn. I wasn't natural, but Liz told me to relax and enjoy it," Daniel said.

So he did.

"Everything around me seemed to go quiet for a moment," he said. "When I looked back up my whole family had gotten emotional. Right there standing around me … and all of them taking photos."

From there on out, life went really quickly.  He wanted to get out of there, but knowing his fellow unit members wanted to see Madalynn, the baby they'd heard so much about, he made the rounds.

"And from that point on it's been on-the-job training for me," he said. "I can only compare it to when I first got to GTMO and learning my new job, right seat/left seat, but with Liz."

After he returned, Daniel had two months off. There was a lot to do and a lot to learn, he said.

"I was coached on what that new job would be," said Daniel. "It wasn't overwhelming, but it was a lot of information. Even though I was home now I knew it wasn't really time to relax. Call it a working vacation. It was time to adapt to a new way and to all the changes, but good changes."

Through this whole experience Daniel found a way to make things work.

"It made me realize so much more how important family is," he said. "I was overwhelmed with how proud I was to be in the National Guard, how they took care of me, of us, and of course to now be a parent."

You can't be in control of everything, he noted wisely.

"Things are different. Things have changed. It's a new chapter."

***

*Last names have been omitted for operational security.