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WAR WITH IRAQ

New Fathers Have to Fight to Stay Focused

With their wives giving birth back home, the separation pangs become all the tougher to bear for servicemen stationed in Iraq.

March 29, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writer

WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ — Sgt. Oscar Casillas became a father on Sunday. He found out about it on Friday, through a small and distant crying sound across a borrowed satellite telephone.

"Is that who I think it is?" he asked.

The Perris, Calif., native smiled weakly, leaned his helmet into the side of a Bradley fighting vehicle, and wept. It was the first sound he'd heard from his first son.

Oscar Casillas Jr. weighed 8 pounds, 5 ounces and is doing fine. His father is not so sure.

"It's just -- I don't know. I'm happy and sad at the same time; [sad] that I wasn't there to welcome him to the world," Casillas said.

"Another Cyclone!" shouted fellow soldiers from "Cyclone" Company of the Army's 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, who heard the news at a morning religious service.

In just this broad semicircle of 14 tanks arrayed across the Iraqi desert, there are three other soldiers in the same position as Casillas, waiting and knowing they'll miss the moment their son or daughter enters this world. A world that for the soldiers is dominated by the scent of death rather than the wonder of life.

Casillas and his wife, Tabitha, pushed up long-standing plans and got married in October, when they got the news that she was pregnant and he was deploying.

She left for her mother's house in Killeen, Texas. Casillas, a 22-year-old gunner in this company's 3rd Platoon, took off for Kuwait, and now Iraq, to a forlorn patch of desert within 100 miles of Baghdad.

He would kill to be home, and probably will have to do just that. His company is girding for a fight against the toughest of Saddam Hussein's troops to take Baghdad and head home.

Sgt. Paul Kellman, a 29-year-old tank ammunition loader and a New Yorker from Flatbush, Brooklyn, knows that battle can't come soon enough for him to see his second child born. The baby is overdue, and his wife, Wendy, is to have labor induced Monday.

"Every now and again, I think of home, especially when I look at the pictures in my wallet," Kellman said.

"But then I have to put it out of my mind. When I get out here, I'm all business. When I'm at home, it's strictly family. I leave work at work."

Still, it's enough to drive Kellman out of the Army after five years, each of them marked by a deployment of some sort -- South Korea, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kuwait.

He plans to leave the service June 14, he said, and rejoin his wife, his 5-year-old son, Paul, and the newborn baby.

"I've only seen my son's first birthday," he said, "and my wife's birthday is three days after his, so you know I miss hers.... Don't get me wrong. I loved every minute of it. I got no complaints, but it's very hard on a family. If I was single, I'd make it 20 years."

Pfc. Kevin Skripka, 22, a tank driver from Pasadena, Texas, hopes to get home to his wife, Mayela, and their 5-year-old daughter, Marissa, before late April or early May, when the couple's second child is due.

The last time they talked was Feb. 21.

"You've got to separate the two, turn it off," he said of soldiering and fatherhood. In the field, "you have to stay focused. If you don't, you get yourself or someone else hurt. You don't ever stop being a dad. You can always improve on being a father."

Combat medic Oscar Gavidia, 23, waits on word from his wife, Milagros, who is due to bear him a son around April 12. She is with her mother at Ft. Stewart, the Georgia home base of the 3rd Infantry Division.

"Whatever happens during the job, you soak it up," Gavidia said. "You have two personalities -- the one you have at work, and the one at home. I try not to talk about work at home. I try to make my wife believe I have a normal civilian job where I stay at home. But I'm always away."

Spc. Jarrid Lott, 28, of Redding, Calif., married his high-school sweetheart, Sheri, during family weekend in basic training. From basic, he went to Ft. Stewart, and two weeks later, he was in Kuwait. He missed the examination that revealed his first child will be a daughter. She is due in July.

"I hope we're out of here by then," he said. "I'm praying. I've seen [my wife] one month in the past year."

For brand-new father Casillas, there was no celebration Friday.

The only thing different about his day was that for 20 minutes of it, he and everyone else -- fathers, bachelors, divorced men -- donned their chemical suits and masks before a demolition team blew up a suspicious tank truck abandoned near the bivouac here.

Then they waited, sweating, to see if deadly chemicals would waft across them all.

None did. And they notched off another day as soldiers and fathers.

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