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thedrifter
06-17-07, 06:40 AM
On their first Father's Day, new dads serving in Iraq cling to sights, sounds of newborns, look forward to the day they'll meet face to face

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, June 17, 2007


By MICHAEL J. MOONEY / The Dallas Morning News
mmooney@dallasnews.com


Joshua Murray, a specialist in the U.S. Army, had a dream recently. He was searching for his 2-week-old son, Dylan. He called out the baby's name. He could see Dylan in the dream, but he was just out of reach.

Then the father woke up. He remembered he was still in Iraq – and won't be home until early next year. He still has never seen Dylan in person.

For Spc. Murray and other U.S. servicemen whose babies were born after they deployed, this first Father's Day will come and go without a precious gift: the chance to hold their new sons and daughters.


BRENT WORSHAM/DMN

"It makes me sad," Spc. Murray, 22, of Garland said on the phone from Iraq. "I won't be able to see my son until he's 8 months old."

Col. Chester Egert, the installation chaplain at Fort Hood, has counseled several families in this situation. "It's a big deal," he said of the separation these fathers face. "There's a lot of pride in the servicemen, but inside there's a lot of loneliness. It's a pain felt on both sides of the ocean."

A member of the 1st "Ironhorse" Brigade with the 1st Calvary Division out of Fort Hood, Spc. Murray is stationed in Taji, a city just north of Baghdad. He grew up in Garland and attended South Garland High School. There, before the summer of his sophomore year, he started dating Ashley, now his wife of two years. His parents, Eric and Anniece Murray, live in Rockwall.

On June 4, Ms. Murray called him as she went into labor. "I told him my water broke," she said. "He said, 'What did your water break for?' "

But right after he got the call, he had to leave the base on a patrol mission. "I tried not to think about home," he said. "I got a feeling in my gut. I started thinking about her." When he returned to camp, all he wanted to do was find out what happened. "As soon as I got out of the Humvee, I was scrambling for someone's cellphone. I called my mother and she told me I was the father of a healthy baby boy."

Their first child, Dylan Rey Murray, was born via Caesarean section. Spc. Murray recalled exactly how he felt when he heard his mother's words: "I was dead-bone tired," he said. "I had been up for 24 hours. Other than that, I was so happy and relieved they were both all right."

Spc. Murray said the news changed his life instantly. "I didn't think it would hit me over here," he said. "But it did. When I saw pictures of him, it was like everything in my life changed."

Ms. Murray, who is still recovering from the delivery, sends him a stream of photos of their son through e-mail. Spc. Murray calls her from cellphones or with phone cards every chance he gets. They talk about what Dylan did since the last time they spoke. "He's always asking me to poke him or wake him up," Ms. Murray said. "I tell him the baby sleeps through the vacuum cleaner. He isn't waking up from a poke."

Spc. Murray just wants to hear the voice of his son, even if he's only crying. "One day, I want to tell him how brave his mom has been through this whole time," he said.

His wife joked: "He'll probably start teaching him to play Texas Hold 'em."

Welcoming her


Another North Texas serviceman is in a similar situation. Ernest "Pete" Abelson II, a 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Marines Corps, left for Iraq on Jan. 27 and won't be back until August at the earliest. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from Fossil Ridge High School in 1999 before attending Texas A&M University, where he met his wife, Rachel. They've been married three years. His parents, Mark and Debbie Abelson, live in Southlake.

His unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marines, is based in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. On Feb. 1, when he stepped off the bus in Fallujah, his buddies told him to call his wife. They said she was in labor.

"I thought they were joking," Lt. Abelson, 26, said by phone from Fallujah. "She wasn't due until the end of the month." He soon realized it was not a trick. His wife was already in the delivery room. He called her at the hospital in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Ms. Abelson had just begun pushing. He told her that he loved her. Her friend Jessica Pinkerton gave Lt. Abelson a play-by-play. First she said she saw the head. Then the torso. Lillian Ruth Abelson was born at 9:40 a.m. – a time burned into his memory.

"I finally started to break down when I heard Lilly cry for the first time," Lt. Abelson said. His wife held the phone to Lilly's ear. From thousands of miles away, the father welcomed his daughter into the world. "I told her I loved her," he said. "I told her I was her father and that I'd be with her soon."

In a small way, he was already there. Before he left California, his wife snapped a picture of him in uniform. Then they got a stuffed doll with his image on it. A small recorder inside the doll allowed the father to record a message.

Whenever Lilly squeezes the doll, she hears her father's voice say: "Hi, Lilly! This is your daddy. I look at pictures of you all the time. I can't wait to meet you when I get home in September. Be good for your mama. I love you."

Ms. Abelson said they call the doll "DaddyDoll." On the bottom of the doll are inscribed the words "DADDY LOVES YOU!"

The mother and her baby take DaddyDoll everywhere they go. The doll is in Lilly's crib every night. They also found a way for Lt. Abelson to read Lilly bedtime stories. Before he left for Iraq, his wife videotaped him reading several Jewish children's stories. She plays them for Lilly before bed.

Lt. Abelson keeps Lilly with him in Fallujah, too. He sets the alarm on his watch for "0940" every morning – the time of his daughter's birth. When he wakes, he thinks to himself: "Hello, Lilly." He also keeps a photo of her inside his helmet so he can see her when he's out on patrol – which usually lasts six to eight days at a time.

When Lilly gets older, her parents plan to tell her the story of her birth. The father also wants to teach her about sacrifice. "We are not the first family where the father has been gone, nor are we the last," he said. "I believe in what I'm doing over here, and hopefully, by me being here, the things I am experiencing, she will never have to."

Hard separation


For her husband's first Father's Day, Ashley Murray sent him blue camouflage blankets and cards with Dylan's tiny footprints. Though he can't wait to come home and hold his son, Spc. Murray thinks the separation is harder for his wife.

"I've got 30 brothers here with me," he said of his fellow soldiers. "I found out she was pregnant 10 days before I deployed. She's done everything on her own. She's managed our finances. She walked around with a big kid in her stomach all by herself for nine months. The hardest part for me is not being able to be there for her."

He said it must be harder for other couples, because his family gets a lot of support from the Family Readiness Group for the 82nd Field Artillery Regiment. The group calls Ms. Murray at least once a week to see how she's feeling, and to see how Dylan's doing.

In Twentynine Palms, Rachel Abelson feels like it's more difficult for fathers who have to leave after their babies are born. "Then they know what they're missing," she said. "It's hard for Pete, but he doesn't know what he's missing, really."

And he can't wait to find out. "I try not to think about it," he said. "If you dwell on it, it makes the days a lot longer."

When he gets home, he wants to give Lilly a bath in the sink. He wants to take her to Big Bear, Calif., on weekends. He wants to be with Rachel and hold their daughter together.

On Father's Day, he will be back out on patrol. His wife knows she probably won't get to talk to him. It will seem like just another day. "We'll be hot. We'll be sweaty. Basically doing what we do," he says.

But he'll have a care package waiting for him. Inside will be a collage of pictures and something extra special. Ms. Abelson ordered another doll. It has a picture of Lilly on it. When he squeezes it, he'll hear her baby noises.

Like the DaddyDoll. But this one is a LillyDoll.

Ellie