Sgt. Clint Headley of Brainerd had seen photographs of his 6-month-old daughter, Emma, sent to him in Iraq.
He'd heard her coos and giggles, too, since his girlfriend, Staci Sedahl, had been sending him audiocassettes of their daughter.
But nothing prepared Headley for the moment he stepped off the plane Thursday at the Twin Cities airport, dressed in desert camouflage, and saw Sedahl holding Emma in her arms.
It was the first time he met his daughter, who was born after Headley and the rest of his military unit, Minnesota Army National Guard's Company C, 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion based at Camp Ripley, left in January to serve in Iraq.
It was love at first sight.
Emma Headley, 6 months, was all smiles as her father, Sgt. Clint Headley, and her mother, Staci Sedahl, spoke to her at the family's Brainerd home.
"Seeing Staci and Emma, it was like, 'Oh my God,'" said Headley, who is home until Dec. 5 on a 15-day leave from Iraq. "I don't think her pictures do her justice. She's much cuter in person. And then to be finally able to hold her ... I don't think it's set in yet."
"It was amazing," added Sedahl. "It was a wonderful feeling but I don't ever want him to leave for that long again."
Sgt. Thomas Potter, also a member of the Camp Ripley unit, arrived home Nov. 15 for a 15-day leave.
Potter worried before he came home that his newborn son, Jory, also 6 months old, would cry or be frightened of him since Jory had never met him. He also questioned whether he should take leave. It may be too painful to leave his wife, Robyn; his 5-year-old stepson, Dayton Isaacs; and Jory behind.
But like Emma, Jory immediately took to his dad when they met for the first time at a friend's house in Minneapolis after Potter's sister picked him up at the airport. He had arrived earlier than anyone had planned.
"When I saw him on the top of the stairs, I had to do a double take," said Potter, who is home on leave until Nov. 30. "I was pretty excited. I may not always show it, but I was. I just couldn't believe what a happy baby he is."
Both Headley and Potter said they have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. They are able to spend the holiday with their families, and, most important, they were able to meet their children.
The two men discovered there have been many changes back home since they've been in Iraq. Not only did Headley become a first-time dad, but he, Sedahl and their daughter moved out of their apartment while he was in Iraq, buying their first home in south Brainerd.
Potter, 28, realized that change was in store for him when he came home to met his son, but he couldn't believe all the baby toys and accessories that are now found throughout their Pillager home. His wife bought new furniture and repainted their home. Potter was a little surprised when he saw that his living room walls were now a deep purple.
The men went from living in tents on a large military base about 50 miles north of Baghdad in the city of Balad to being home with their families, just in time to spend Thanksgiving with their babies. It's been a surreal experience.
"Sometimes it feels like a dream," said Potter. "You're here, but it feels like a dream."
The 131 men and women in Company C, 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion stationed in Iraq drew numbers to see who would be able to come home on leave first. The first 20 soldiers were selected randomly, then the rest of the soldiers drew numbers. Potter was No. 22; Headley was No. 37. There is a chance many of the soldiers may not be able to take leave before the unit returns home. While the official word is that the unit will remain in Iraq for one calendar year, or until April, both soldiers said they've heard reports it could be sooner or even later.
Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet holiday for the Potters. Thomas Potter's father, Sgt. 1st Class Roy Potter, and his father-in-law, Sgt. Bruce Patton, also are with the unit and remain in Iraq. He said it was unlikely that either of them would be able to take leave because of the high numbers they drew. Even if his father was offered leave, Potter said he probably would refuse.
"I think he wants to stay with his troops until the end," said Potter.
Instead, Potter's father told him before he left Iraq that he was to take his mother, Carol Potter, who lives in Little Falls, out for a steak dinner.
The Potters went to a Brainerd area tree farm last week and cut down their Christmas tree, even though it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. They plan to celebrate Thanksgiving with both their families Thursday and then celebrate Christmas on Friday while Potter is home. They are already dreading the day when Potter has to board a plane for Baltimore, the first stop before Germany, Kuwait and then back to Iraq.
"It'll be tough," said Potter. "It was one of the reasons why I thought I shouldn't go home because I'll hate to go back. But I had to see Jory and my family."
"It's going to be heartbreaking," Robyn Potter said of when her husband has to leave. She was a member of the same military unit as her husband, father and father-in-law until she retired after Jory was born. Most of her friends are in Company C.
It's been an adjustment for Robyn to have her husband home again. He's becoming better at changing diapers and she was elated to have someone to shovel their driveway after the recent snowfall.
"I forgot that he snored," Robyn said as she smiled at her husband.
"I still don't think I snore," Thomas told his wife.
"Oh, honey, you do snore," Robyn said.
Headley is learning the ropes in his south Brainerd home. His first night home he was still on Iraqi time, he said, so he was wide awake at 2 a.m. when Emma started fussing in her bedroom. Sedahl had told him to just put her pacifier back in her mouth and she'd go back to sleep, but Headley turned on the light and starting playing with his daughter, even though it was the middle of the night. He figured he'd been waiting six months for this and he was going to take full advantage of his time home with Emma.
While Headley knew he was a father, it took coming home from Iraq for him to feel like a dad.
"She looks like me. She's got Staci's eyes," said Headley. "She's got my hairline, the poor girl."
"He's a wonderful dad," said Sedahl. "Diapers? Yeah, he's learning."
Headley, Sedahl and Emma had their first official family photograph taken together Monday, which they plan to use for their Christmas cards. Headley said it is too depressing to think about the things he'll miss when he's back in Iraq. Emma may be nearly 1 by the time he returns.
"I guess this gives me more of a purpose of being there," Headley said of his daughter. "I have a kid I don't want being brought up in a world of terror."
Headley is a nurse at Northern Orthopedics in Brainerd while Potter is a network administrator at American National Bank of Minnesota in Brainerd.
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