(Miami Herald) – Sometimes, Sgt. Chad Martens gets a reminder that he and infant son Caden still are working through the getting-to-know-you stage.
“Today when he woke up, I don’t think he had any idea who I was,” Martens said.
Martens no longer is a voice through a toy or face on a computer, the equivalent of an international Elmo. For returning troops like him, who became first-time parents just before — or after — leaving for Iraq, that may be the best Father’s Day gift: Getting to be a dad face to face.
For all the changes returning home brings, fatherhood can be the seasoning that smoothes the transition back to civilian life.
“The first thing I wanted to do was hold him,” said Martens of Margate, a sector flight chief at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in Iraq until his return this month. “The second thing I wanted to do was play around with him.”
The day after Capt. Eduardo Martinez of Miramar came home from Kirkuk to wife Cecilia and son Gabriel, he admitted, “I was so wrapped up in him, I grabbed him first, then hugged her. It was amazing to see him. This is amazing.
“I did crash for a few hours, but when I woke up — it was just like a magnet, just sitting there looking at him.”
JUST IN CASE
Nikki Oda gave birth to son Beck on the day before husband Jason left his training base in Texas for his latest tour in Iraq.
“I was very worried he wouldn’t meet his son,” she said. Nikki had coped with such worries before. Sgt. Oda’s first tour of duty began just weeks after their wedding.
Although Christine Martens says she was confident Chad would come home, she did save text messages and all of his e-mails — just in case. Also, before Chad left, he recorded messages for the Build-A-Bear so his son could hear his voice every morning.
“He was home [from the hospital] only two weeks,” Sgt. Martens said of Caden. “It was kind of odd because I really didn’t know him, but I still missed him. At that point, you haven’t really established a bond. It was especially hard after I left learning all the first times he did this or that. I saw him almost every night on Skype.
“The only time he saw me was on a TV screen.”
That’s the first look Madison Bonura got of her father, Sgt. Joe Bonura. Bonura, of West Palm Beach, and his wife, Christina, communicated via Skype, the software application that allows users to make calls over the Internet. They did that every other day until late in her pregnancy, when they talked every day at the end of his shift. On the delivery day, Christina took her video camera-equipped laptop to the hospital and Bonura watched the entire delivery live from seven time zones away in Iraq.
“Madison was born, she was in Mommy’s arms and Daddy was inside the laptop next to her,” Sgt. Bonura said, a beaming smile in his voice.
The same communication technology that shrinks the world and historical cycles also shrank the separation somewhat, with communication tethers between soldiers and their families. Sgt. Oda first heard his son’s cries via a hospital nurse’s cell phone.
TECH TO THE RESCUE
Sgt. Bonura said soldiers with spouses and/or kids beat a steady path to the Skype-equipped free computer terminals all over the Kirkuk base, including the laundry and the chapel. The technology also allowed them to show their loved ones back home the base or their rooms.
“They get an idea of where you’re living and not thinking you’re sleeping in a mudhole,” he said.
Nikki Oda agreed.
“What’s easier this time than his last deployment is he was able to get on Skype,” she said. “So, our son was able to hear his voice and see him. He read our son a book in Japanese over the phone.”
Capt. Martinez felt the grueling regimen of each training day in Texas actually created more separation than the geographical space between his South Florida home and Iraq.
“In Iraq, there were a number of ways to stay connected,” he said. “We were able to Skype. E-mail was pretty reliable. We weren’t able to Photobucket video because the Internet connection was too slow for that. She would send me videos of him every few weeks.
“The biggest thing was not being able to be there. I could see pictures, hear his voice when we had a connection.”
Sometimes, thoughts of family inspire. Other times, dwelling on what you have at home can hinder you getting back to it.
`FRIDAY NEVER COMES’
“Before [Madison's birth], time was going by quickly,” Bonura said. “When you have something to look forward to, time slows. It’s almost like when you’re a little kid and you’re going on vacation on Friday. It seems like Friday never comes.”
A wallet-sized photo of Madison sat in Sgt. Bonura’s pocket or on his equipment when he went to work each night. He’d take it out when he got the chance, but didn’t want to leave it out for fear it would get ruined.
Capt. Martinez, a military policeman, also kept a magnet postcard of his son with him constantly. It served as a continual reminder of what he had waiting back home.
But, come time to clock in, he said, “when you’re on, you’re on. You tend to put everything aside when you’re on. You’re moving all day long, you don’t have time for other things.”
Sgt. Martens, in charge of 40 people during his Iraq deployment, said sometimes reminders of parenthood — reading e-mails, overhearing others talk about their kids — made the tour worse. Hard as those times were, he knew his stint would end and he’d return to an assignment for which there’s no training.
“There are life-and-death responsibilities over there,” Martens said. “Over here, it’s a whole different responsibility, but a lot more rewarding.
“I was only a dad for two or three weeks before I left. I’m still getting used to my wife and I being by ourselves,” he said. “I really don’t know how to be a father yet. I’m learning as he’s learning about his world.”