The first time Army specialist Brian Morel held his daughter was in the Savannah International Airport. He took the 7-month-old from his wife's arms and hoisted her above his head -- he in the subdued greens and tans of Army fatigues, and she in a pink and white jumper.
‘‘Hi, there,’’ he said, raising his voice an octave.
She didn’t squirm.
Later, he’d recall that he wasn’t sure what to expect that first time.
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He had been searching for feelings about Sophia. He knew what it was like to hold his wife, Sarah. He knew what it was like to hold his 6-year-old son, Aiden. He knew what it was like to love them. But before March 24, Brian only knew photos of the newborn child with bright blue eyes.
When he lifted Sophia as fellow passengers filtered around him, that feeling changed.
‘‘As soon as I held her, I fell in love,’’ he said.
Brian Morel, 31, is one of the 600,000 active duty military who have children, according to the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University. More than 40 percent of the total number enlisted have kids. But like the rest of his fellow parent soldiers, Brian has two families. There’s his ‘‘military family,’’ as he calls it: the men and women he serves with in the Fires Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Camp Taji north of Baghdad. And there’s his family back home.
Arriving in Savannah in March, Brian started his 18-day leave. He was in the middle of a 15-month deployment in Iraq. He had not seen his family for the past seven months. During that time, Sophia was born and his family moved from a military station in Germany back to his wife’s home town: Hilton Head Island, S.C.
The point of R&R may be to leave the heat of war and see family. But with it comes a whole new set of challenges.
Brian’s first meal back on American soil was at Phillip’s Famous Seafood in the Savannah airport food court. He sat with Sophia in lap. She didn’t fuss. Brian checked Aiden for lost teeth.
The father unveiled presents. Sophia got a shirt: My Daddy is in the Sandbox — Camp Taji. Aiden got a shirt from Ireland, the size judged from e-mailed photos from birthday and Christmas.
‘‘Might be a bit big — I don’t know,’’ Brian said. ‘‘Hard to tell from pictures how big. He’s grown.’’
Over seven months, lots of change can happen in the life of a kindergartner.
This is Brian’s first introduction to Sophia. But his larger challenge is with Aiden. Aiden remembers his dad. The boy remembers basketball on the military base in Germany and the bumper cars that jolt a bit more over there than they do here.
How will a 6-year-old react to the man he most identifies with coming back into his life, then leaving again?
Once they were done with lunch, Brian struggled with his camo backpack and a diaper bag, while Sarah handled Sophia. Aiden scampered away toward the arcade.
‘‘Some things never change,’’ Brian sighed and chased after him.
Looking up to Dad
He considered joining the Army after Sept. 11. The idea gave him a sense of purpose in life — a feeling that he was doing right in the world. But Sarah was pregnant. He put off the idea of joining the military.
They were married in 2004. He wanted to go to medical school, but the toils of having too-long hours of class and study, a job and a family were too much.
But becoming an Army medic was a way he could combine his two passions.
He joined the Army in 2006 and the family was stationed in Vilseck, Germany. He was deployed to Iraq in mid-August 2007. Sarah was about eight months pregnant with Sophia.
After having the baby girl, Sarah moved the family back to Hilton Head. They moved in with her father and stepmother, who have four young children in a spacious house that’s a quick walk to the beach on Brams Point. Her family convinced her to finish her teaching degree. Sarah, 27, started student teaching at Michael C. Riley Elementary School in January, through a program at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Aiden started kindergarten. Sarah’s father, Bill, fills in the role of father and takes Aiden to play tennis and basketball. Sarah’s step-mother, Louisa, helps with Sophia when Sarah teaches at school.
Sarah worried a bit about Aiden’s transition from Germany back to the Lowcountry. She figured he’d fit in fine with his peers. He takes after his mother in that’s he’s outgoing and talkative. Aiden’s also an athlete, who can get into whatever sports the boys are into.
But the family went from two parents doting on him to one mom and a newborn sister who shares affection. When they first arrived here, Aiden met with a counselor. The counselor said Aiden had adjusted well. He has good feelings toward his new sibling. But the counselor had one warning: ‘‘He’s really smart. Don’t let him work you over for attention.’’
Aiden looks up to his father for a sense of approval and with unwavering admiration. His colored marker drawings show images of battles and weaponry — but then again, so do most 6-year-old boys’. The sign he made for his father at the airport showed him and his dad, both holding guns shaped like baseball bats. When Brian first joined the Army, Aiden would say his dad killed bad guys. But Sarah and Brian told him he was a medic, similar to a school nurse. They left out the parts about IED blasts and untreatable wounds.
Now ask Aiden what his dad does and he says, ‘‘Help guys.’’
Aiden says he wants to join the Army when he grows up.
The first few days of Brian’s deployment didn’t feel like a vacation. They drove directly to Disney World from the Savannah airport. Then they went back to Hilton Head, where Brian’s parents, sister and brother visited. By the second week, things calmed down.
While Brian was home, Sarah’s uncle allowed them to stay at his place in an Oak-shaded cul-de-sac in Hilton Head Plantation, while the uncle was out of town.
The Wednesday before he left, Brian had not looked at his itinerary yet. He’s describing his leave in the kitchen of the house, wearing cargo shorts and a T-shirt. He’s polite and low-key, speaking in a straightforward manner.
‘‘It’s bittersweet,’’ he said. ‘‘You really want to enjoy yourself, but in the back of your mind you have to head back.’’
The couple tries to focus on the positive: Brian will be back in another eight months. He’s enlisted until 2011, but gets extended leave after his current deployment ends.
Aiden ‘‘is old enough where he can look at the silver lining,’’ Brian said. ‘‘He’s starting to look forward to when I get back again.’’
With Sophia, Brian said it feels like he’s been there the whole time. She smiles when he stands over her in her crib. She’s soothed when he holds her.
‘‘I think she knows I’m her dad,’’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully, she’ll remember me.’’