The first five years of marriage for Brian and Dawn Walker wasn't your typical newlywed bliss.
The couple, who moved to Baxter last August from Fort Lewis, Wash., have only been living together for about half their marriage because Brian was deployed to Bosnia in 2003 for seven months and then he spent two more deployments in Iraq.
But the time the Walkers did spend together was an act of love. Not only their love for each other, but the love they have for five children - two sisters and three brothers - who didn't have homes and the Walkers welcomed into their lives.
The Walkers knew after they met that they wanted to have a family. Dawn, 45, already had three adult children and couldn't have more. The Walkers decided to adopt, but had to go through a few obstacles in the road first.
The first two obstacles occurred a month before the Walkers were married. Dawn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in April 2003 and Brian, 32, who was on active duty in the Army, found out he was being deployed to Bosnia that June. The couple married May 24, 2003, in Florida and then they moved to Fort Lewis.
Brian and Dawn Walker recently paused in their front yard in Baxter with their five adopted children, John (left), Brian Jr., Zoey, Conner and Katherine. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
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"At that time my MS was getting worse and we wanted to get married before he left," said Dawn. "2003 was the worst I ever felt. I was always so tired. I could hardly do anything.
"Before I was diagnosed I just thought that I was clumsy. I'd fall over most anything. But then I started having vision problems and my speech began to slur. My doctor initially thought it had something to do with my pituitary gland, but later I started to experience memory loss."
Dawn began taking medication for her MS.
When Brian returned from his deployment in Bosnia, the couple began taking Foster to Adopt classes. Then in the middle of the classes, Brian had to drop out when he was deployed to Iraq in December 2004 and was gone for about a year. Dawn continued the classes and became certified to become an adoptive parent.
When Brian returned, he finished the classes and Dawn repeated the classes with her husband. In October 2006, the couple met the children who they would later adopt. The Walkers and other potential parents attended an event called Kids Fest, where parents could see the children available for adoption.
"It was like shopping for kids," said Dawn. "It was very sad to see how many children in Washington needed homes. I felt so bad for these kids, they wanted a home so badly. We watched the other parents and there were some who pointed at a kid and would say I want that one, but not the sibling. It was so sad. We felt so uncomfortable."
Brian said, "We didn't know what to tell these kids. We wanted them all."
Dawn said she saw one older boy sitting at a table moping and she went up to him and asked him if he wanted to play checkers. The two played and talked about science and butterflies. At the same time, Brian was playing balloon swords with two younger boys. It ended up the three boys were all brothers.
"We were torn on these three boys and another boy who had his arms around Brian's neck the whole time," said Dawn. "But there was something with these boys. I bonded the most with the older boy and I told Brian that he needed a mom and dad. We thought we could do more with the three boys than just the one boy."
The Walkers had several visits with the boys and then became foster parents to them. While the Walkers were busy getting to know the three brothers, the couple's social worker called to add one more twist to their family.
"She told us about two girls we met at the Kids Fest, who went with another family that day to be adopted, who later threw them away," said Dawn. "The mother asked the girls if they wanted to visit their foster family, she dropped them off and she never came back. And the foster mother was losing her home, so she couldn't keep the girls.
"We told the social worker we'd take the girls until she found them a home. That night at dinner the girls asked us our plans and if we'd take them. The younger girl had tears in her eyes and asked us if we could be her mom and dad. She said all she ever wanted was a mom and dad."
The Walkers told the girls they'd see if they could work it out. The five children were getting along and they bonded.
"We thought we could make it work," Brian said.
Dawn said, "We knew at that first dinner with the girls that our family had grown."
The family had a lot to deal with adjusting to each other. Dawn said the children all came from broken families and were either abused or neglected. The children - who all have new names - are John, 14; Katherine, 13; Zoey, 8; Conner, 7; and Brian Jr., 6.
"The first six months were like, 'Wow,'" said Dawn. "The girls had a harder time adjusting than the boys. But they all have come so far. They all get along and they've bonded. They take care of each other. John said he feels safe now and doesn't feel like he has to worry about getting new parents."
The Walkers officially adopted the children last Aug. 21, but there was still one more obstacle in the road. Brian was called to active duty for a third time and was bound for Iraq. This time he not only had to worry about his wife, Dawn, who was still suffering from MS, but also his five children.
Brian moved the family to Baxter to be in a smaller town and school for the children. The Walkers were originally from Minnesota and liked the lakes area and Dawn has family near the area.
Before Brian left for Iraq last October, Dawn went to see a doctor and she was prescribed a different MS treatment. She had to have someone give her an Avonex injection in her leg once a week.
"I can't give the shot to myself," said Dawn. "Once it goes in it burns. Then later I get the chills and I don't feel good. I can't do anything for about a day after the shot. The treatment reduces the MS symptoms and if I don't take it I have more problems.
"When Brian left for Iraq I asked a neighbor or a church friend to help me with the injection. The kids can't give it to me."
Dawn and the five children kept busy when Brian left. They made cookies for him every month and they sent him candy. John joined the chess club, Zoey and Conner joined hockey and Brian Jr. joined wrestling.
"We had something going on every night but Friday," Dawn said. "Monday was the busiest with hockey and wrestling that ran about the same time so I had to be in two places at once. Then we had confirmation on Wednesdays, church on Sundays. We had homework every night and we'd start at 3:30 p.m., take a break at dinner and then I began helping the older ones at 8:30 p.m. I was tired, but we were doing OK.
"Then I found out that my dad was dying and my grandson got RSV (respiratory syncytial virus.) I had no one to help me out and it began getting stressful, which isn't good when you have MS. Stress makes your symptoms get worse. I began going downhill and I had more seizures and tremors."
Eventually Dawn came to her breaking point and Brian was given an emergency leave from active duty. He came home April 14 to a yard full of yellow ribbons and welcome home signs and balloons.
Brian has since accepted a job at Camp Ripley in the U.S. Property and Fiscal Office and he joined the Minnesota National Guard. He said he may be deployed again, but only time will tell.
For now, the family enjoys spending time together. They like to camp, play games and Friday is pizza night.
"The children have made my life fuller and it has added to our relationship," said Brian. "They kept me going when I was in Iraq."
Dawn said it's been fun watching the children grow.
"I wouldn't trade them for anything," said Dawn. "We're more grounded because of them. They are so thankful for everything. They thank us for dinner every night. My older kids never did that. We're very lucky."
As for Dawn's MS, she said, "I'm not going to let MS stop me. The family is going to do the MS Walk Sunday."
JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5851.
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