15 Days: A Soldier's Journey Home

By Mark Geary, Reporter

Ross Donelson (center) cuts the umbilical cord moments after after April Donelson gave birth to their second son, Liam, while Dr. Heather Marthers holds the cord on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011, at the Washington County Hospital in Washington. Donelson planned his leave from National Guard duty in Afghanistan to coincide with Liam's birth. April's mother Brenda Lamansky of Brighton holds the Donelson's older son Brody, 2, while April's sister, Alison Connelly of Richland, a nurse at the hospital, looks on. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

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By Mark Geary

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - April Donelson spent 146 days waiting. “We’re halfway done,” she said as she stood in The Eastern Iowa Airport, holding her 2-year-old son, Brody.

April’s husband, Spc. Ross Donelson, serving with the 1-133 Bravo Company, was returning to Iowa after having been deployed to Afghanistan with about 3,000 other Iowa National Guard soldiers last year.

Two days after Ross got his orders, April learned she was pregnant, but Ross was able to schedule his leave to be home this month in time to see the birth of his second child.

“I’ve lost 40 pounds during this pregnancy because of the stress,” she said. “We didn’t plan on doing this during a deployment. ... You have to learn how to do everything yourself. You have to be the mom and the dad. ... You can’t sit around and complain about it. You just have to do it.”

At the airport, Brody sported a T-shirt that said, “Out of my way! I am here to pick up my daddy!”

He can’t wait for Ross to arrive. He’s not so sure about the other arrival.

The toddler looked right at his mom and said, “Mommy, Daddy come to our house, but no baby brother.”

The last time Ross saw Brody, “he was still just a baby. Now, he’s a big boy that is demanding and tells you what to do. He is the boss,” April said.

After about an hour of delays, Flight 6620 landed. Minutes later, April and Brody had their eyes fixed on every passenger walking through the gate.

When Ross saw his family, his expression shifted from stress to celebration. Tears flowed from his eyes.

“I’m so happy to see you,” he said, “It’s been forever.”

April and Brody wrapped their arms around him and held him tight. The past 146 days felt like years. The next 15 were about to fly.

At The Hospital
Three days later, the trio trekked to the Washington County Hospital. They parked in the same parking spot and checked in to room 2025, the room where Brody was born. The same doctor was there, too.

“I’m just glad he’s finally here and that he’s going to make it for the actual delivery,” April said.

All that time away wore on Ross, too.

“When I was lying in bed at night, all I could do was think about home,” he said.

The wait was over. He had made it back to Iowa in time to see his second child being born.

At 4:29 p.m., Liam enlisted in the Donelson family, weighing in at 6 pounds, 10 ounces.

When April saw him, she said, “You look like your daddy.”

Ross cradled the newborn in his arms and smiled.

“I remember when Brody was this little. We weren’t prepared for him,” he said. “I think we’re a little more prepared this time.”

At Home
After they brought the baby home to Richland, Ross ended up on daddy duty.

“He wakes up a couple times a night. He just wants a bottle. I change him,” he said. “We had to force Brody to eat. Liam, if he wants his food, he wants his food now!”

Ross didn’t mind following Liam’s orders.

“When I was overseas, every day was slow. Now that I’m home, it’s like, ‘What happened to the weekend? Where did Monday and Tuesday go?’ ” he said.

Big brother Brody gets a little jealous sometimes and tries to pull rank.

“He’ll say, ‘I love you, baby Liam.’ But then the next moment, he’s trying to tip over the bassinet,” April said.

And even though he’s just 2, Brody knows his dad will only spend a few more days at home.

“We tried to talk to him about me going back to work. That’s kind of hard. He doesn’t understand that. He doesn’t want me to do that,” Ross said.

April doesn’t want her husband to leave, either.

“You try to enjoy every minute you have with him. But, you can’t. It’s always in the back of your mind,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Meanwhile, Ross wanted his last few days at home to crawl. He whispered to Liam, “I love you. I love mommy. And I love Brody. I love everybody, and I hope you don’t forget about me.”

April documented everything she could about the pregnancy. She plans to do the same for the first few months of Liam’s life.

Back to Afghanistan
Rain fell from the sky on the Sunday morning when Ross flew back to Afghanistan. He had to catch a 6 a.m. flight. The Donelsons arrived around 5 a.m. Baby Liam stayed home with Grandma.

“I still remember getting off the plane and seeing my wife and kid. Now, I have another kid. It seems like yesterday,” Ross said.

After he got his boarding pass, the family said farewell.

Ross and April kissed and said, “I love you.”

Then, the soldier said goodbye to Brody, turned to April and said, “Please go somewhere he can’t see me.”

Within seconds, Brody wailed for his father.

Ross stood in the security checkpoint line, fighting back tears. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” echoed through the terminal, drowning out all other noises.

“I know, baby. I know. Shhhh. It’s OK,” April said. “It’s alright.” Nothing comforted him.

“There’s not much you can say to a 2-year-old to make him understand ... It’s horrible, but I need to stay strong to take care of him,” April said. “I’m scared, but we just have to do it.”

E-mail Mark Geary: Mark.Geary@kcrg.com
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