It's Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, 6:30 p.m. In a brightly lit hangar containing hundreds of military spouses in El Paso, Texas, three new moms sit patiently waiting. Amanda Helenschmidt, 29, Amber Saldana, 21, and Kimber Rucker, 21, sit in a row, coddling their newborns, who are ready to meet Daddy.
The flight back to Ft. Bliss from Kuwait, where the men have been decompressing since leaving Iraq, is only 31 hours. Nothing, compared to the long months it's been since these Army wives kissed their husbands goodbye. But these final moments spent waiting in the hangar feel endless. A smoke screen of fog -- and the men emerge. In one group, from Ft. Bliss' 1st Armored Division/4th Brigade, march out three new dads. "Sergeants, report for diaper duty!" a poster reads.
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The long-awaited first embraces happen as time stands still. Blaring rock music is drowned out by the power of the moment. Sgt. Derek Helenschmidt, 27, gazes down on his five-week-old baby daughter, Scarlet.
His eyes well up as he chokes back his words: "She's amazing." His wife, Amanda, can't hold back her grin. Her husband is home. Her family, whole. Sgt. Helenschmidt is overcome with emotion.
He saw his daughter's birth on Skype from half a world away. For 23 ½ hours he watched with baited breath, in and out of sleep, in and out of Internet connectivity, anticipating the day he could kiss her tiny forehead. Now, she's in his arms, and war is a distant memory.
Week One at home. Early morning reveille replaced by a 5 a.m. "sound off" signal from a hungry Scarlet. "It's my favorite time of day," Sgt. Helenschmidt says. "She looks at me with those big eyes, and it's love -- like I'm the only one in the world."
While Daddy has been deployed twice, once in Korea and once in Iraq, the verdict's still out on whether the Army prepared him for fatherhood. "Nothing prepares you for this," laughs good-natured Amanda, "but we've always wanted kids, and so wanting it made the transition easy." The days ahead will be filled with a new car to replace the one they've outgrown, and a trip to Wichita Falls, Texas, to introduce Scarlet to the whole family. Then it's back to work at the base for Derek, and back to being a physical therapist for Amanda.
They are looking forward to suppertime together again. "He cooks; I clean," says Amanda. Just enjoying dinner together and having a normal family life used to be rare, so it means the world to them. "He's just gotten so sweet," sighs Amanda. "We joke God sent us a daughter to turn this infantryman soft!"
|An Unexpected Turn|
Amber and her five-week-old baby, Blane, sit in the hangar, ready to start life with Amber's 23-year-old husband, Sgt. A.J. Saldana, and their 19-month-old girl, Esme. While Sgt. Saldana had watched Blane's birth on Skype, nothing could match the excitement of cradling his son for the first time.
"I feel a lot of emotion; I cried a little bit," he said. "He looks likes his mom. He was just so small; I didn't want to drop him."
Sgt. Saldana had been sent on his first deployment to Iraq nearly five months earlier. He went through basic training while his infant daughter grew, and was looking forward to being home to see Blane grow and develop a personality.
But after just one day home, A.J. told Amber about headaches he had been having that were getting increasingly worse. Barely a week back, and life was taking an unexpected turn. Initially diagnosed with viral meningitis, a few days later A.J. was checked into the hospital for a battery of tests to figure out what the right diagnosis was.
"It's been painful and nerve-wracking not knowing what's going on," he said.
As he waits for answers he looks ahead optimistically. "Being with my family is helping me out. I'm just looking forward to running around with my daughter. I'm gonna teach her how to build a fort. And Blane, I'm gonna do whatever he needs, starting with changing his diapers."
While this wasn't the relaxing reunion the Saldanas had anticipated, Amber remains grateful to have her husband home. "You never know what could have happened over there," she said. "No matter what, I'm just happy they all came home safely in the end."
In another corner of the hangar, fatigued from the long flight back from Kuwait, 23-year-old Sgt. Corey Rucker is invigorated once again at the sight of his six-week-old baby, Brayden. He feels a sense of calmness and serenity in these landmark life moments. He had been away from his wife, Kimber, for four months on this, his second deployment to Iraq.
"I was so happy, all smiles," says Kimber. "We didn't even do much that first night back -- just all sat inside and played and bonded."
A few days later, Mom and Baby head to Ft. Myers, Fla., while Corey stays in Texas. The family will be reunited again just in time for Christmas. On the agenda? Lots of family time.
"Bradyn's now almost eight weeks," boasts his proud mom, "and he's smiling a lot, and tried to stand. It's all new for Corey, and he's gonna love seeing it."
The coming days promise a big Christmas dinner, with lots of visiting family. Kimber has a surprise photo album for Corey filled with pictures that chronicle what he missed while he away. She says it's an "awesome" feeling having the family together: "We're looking forward to watching our baby grow." While Corey is slated to go back to Ft. Bliss after the holidays, in the meantime he's just happy to dust his boots off and enjoy family life.
For all these men -- Sgt. Helenschmidt, Sgt. Saldana and Sgt. Rucker -- there is no longer the threat of a nearby explosion or roadside bomb, rather just a tactile, tangible new life in their arms. They have trained for this: something precious to protect.
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