Josh and Jakob Cackowski

Josh Cackowski, left, and his son Jakob, 11, are reflected in a mirror next to a 10-year-old picture by Baltimore Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum when Josh, who was in the Navy at the time, returned from his deployment to the Persian Gulf and was greeted by an 18-month-old Jakob. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / May 21, 2013)

As the hospital ship USNS Comfort motored up the Chesapeake Bay, Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Josh Cackowski was eager to see his son — and anxious about how the 18-month-old might react to him.

Cackowski had celebrated Jakob's first birthday before leaving for the Iraq War, and had been around to see the boy take his first steps. He had stayed in telephone and e-mail contact with his wife throughout the five-month deployment, and had been getting regular updates on their son's achievements and adventures.

But as he returned home, the new father wondered whether the boy would remember him.

"It was a lot of anxiety," Cackowski recalls. "Just because, you know, I don't know how kids are at that age."

As it turned out, he needn't have worried. Josh, in his Navy dress whites for the homecoming a decade ago, and Jakob, in his tumbling blond curls, shorts and sandals, hit it off.

And their joyful dockside reunion at the Canton Marine Terminal, captured by a Baltimore Sun photographer and reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, would provide a bright, hopeful image in the early days of the long Iraq War.

"The happy, charming scene … must be given wide distribution," Severna Park reader Marjorie Sutton wrote in a letter to The Sun. "What a wonderful front page it afforded us."

As the image spread, Cackowski received letters, drawings from schoolchildren, and thank you notes from across the country.

On Memorial Day, he remembers that time.

"I think of my service," the Minnesota native, now 35, out of the Navy and settled in Maryland, says in the dining room of his Calvert County townhouse. Eleven-year-old Jacob, his blond curls now falling in long ringlets, listens and nods along.

"But most importantly," Cackowski continues, "I think of the ones that have given the ultimate sacrifice, and are gone. I'm just lucky to be home. And to have Jake, and all that good stuff."

Cackowski separated from Jakob's mother in 2006 and left the Navy in 2008. He settled in Solomons to be near his son; he and his ex-wife share custody.

After working in fuels in the Navy, Cackowski is now a shift supervisor at the NuStar Energy oil terminal in Piney Point.

Jakob's not interested in following his father into the Navy. He wants to be a herpetologist — a scientist specializing in reptiles and amphibians.

Sitting at the dining room table, the pair seem to share the same easy rapport that was captured in the 10-year-old picture.

Cackowski had expected to be around for more of his son's infancy. After training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., and traveling the world aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation out of San Diego, he was ready for shore duty.

He arrived at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland in October 2001. His wife, Danielle, was seven months pregnant.

"I had come with the intention of working 8 to 4, and being home every day," he says. "I was like, 'Sweet, I can enjoy the first three years of his life.'"

But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the nation was at war in Afghanistan, and would soon invade Iraq.

"I got attached to another boat and wound up going out to sea more," Cackowski says.