Sweet reunion

Sgt. Judah Kelber, just off the bus at Camp Lejeune, N.C., snuggles his son Aaron, just shy of 10 weeks old, for the first time after returning from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan March 6. (Sarah Kickler Kelber, Baltimore Sun / March 5, 2012)

It wasn't until my husband held our son Aaron for the first time that I realized I'd been holding my breath — for months.

In August, Judah had hugged me, 20-something-weeks' pregnant, and our 3-year-old goodbye before leaving for a tour in Afghanistan.

Nearly five months later, he'd watched via Skype from the district center in Musa Qal'eh as Aaron was born, four days past his Christmas Day due date — at 1:58 p.m. by my watch, 2328 by Judah's.

Since that day, I'd been staring at the baby, who wears my husband's face in miniature, and marveling at their similarities — the long eyelashes, the expression in sleep, the chin, the smirk — but refusing to fully acknowledge the fear that I'd never see those two versions of the same face together.


This was the first deployment for Judah, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves, serving with the 4th Civil Affairs Group out of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington.

It was a challenge we didn't take lightly. When he re-enlisted in the Marines in 2010, we knew he'd almost certainly be mobilized, so we made lists of questions, did research and talked endlessly before he signed the papers.

We were expecting to each face numerous tests during the deployment, and ones we'd have to take on as individuals rather than the finely honed team we'd become after nearly 12 years of marriage.

What we weren't expecting was to discover, shortly before his mobilization last April, that I was pregnant.

To call it a shock is an understatement. Our son Isaac was born in 2008 thanks to in-vitro fertilization, and in 2010 an ectopic pregnancy left my chances of getting pregnant naturally at slightly higher than slim to none.

But there we were, mere weeks before his pre-deployment training was to begin, learning that I was expecting. It didn't take long for the nerves to start in.

I was already worried about how I was going to get through the months of parenting rambunctious 3-year-old Isaac without my partner. I'd need to keep us fed without too many trips to the drive-through (full disclosure: this food editor does much more reading on the subject of cooking than actual cooking) since the kitchen is mainly Judah's realm. And I was hoping I could learn some of his bedtime-ninja skills before he left: He could nearly always get Isaac to sleep with a minimum of drama, but come his Reserve-duty weekends, I'd be tearing my hair out at the witching hour.

Now I had to worry how I'd get through labor and the first few weeks with a newborn without him, while he started to deal with the fact that he wouldn't be present for the birth of our second child.

And, of course, I could barely stand to contemplate the dangers he'd see in a war zone. His job wouldn't put him in as much peril as some other Marines — as a civil affairs Marine, he was to represent the Marines to the local populace and be the locals' advocate in meetings with the Marines — but it wouldn't keep him out of harm's way.

In August, Judah started the long journey from D.C. to North Carolina to Kyrgyzstan and, finally, to Afghanistan. At that point, my fears became more palpable. It felt like a dripping faucet — there in the background, constantly calling for attention, but easier to ignore in the tumult of the day's tasks. When those fears threatened to come to the forefront as the deployment went on, I'd throw myself harder into whatever I was doing at work, or come up with a new game to play with Isaac, or call one of my parents — whatever it took to keep that drip from becoming a torrent.

A few weeks after Judah's arrival in Afghanistan, we had a talk: How much detail did I want about the dangers he was facing? I stopped and considered. "I don't want you to ever feel like there's anything you can't talk to me about," I told him. But we agreed that he would wait a bit, until the immediate danger was past. We figured that a minute-by-minute accounting might magnify the stress for both of us.

As it turned out, he had something to tell me: A couple of weeks earlier, he'd been in the lead vehicle of a convoy, and it had hit an improvised explosive device.

Don't worry, he told me. All the protective technology — the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle he was in, the mine roller attached to the front — had worked exactly as it was supposed to, and the worst thing anyone had experienced was a little ringing in the ears.

We each tried not to dwell on things, and luckily we were able to connect via email most days, sharing photos and trading anecdotes. Mine were usually about something funny Isaac had said; his often were about something funny a translator or one of the local children had said.

At home, I put one foot in front of the other, getting through each shift at work, each day-care drop-off and pickup, each doctor's appointment, and trying to pack the weekends with the activities Isaac would be doing if both his parents were around. I was hardly a bedtime ninja, but some rough nights were mitigated by listening to the books Judah recorded before he left or, later, watching the video of him reading "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" sent to us via the USO.