After a year sleeping on bunk beds and working long hours in temperatures that can soar over 125 degrees, it's understandable why most soldiers want to hit a swimming pool and take their kids to Disneyland when they return home from Iraq.
Bradley Blake says the idea is tempting, but he has bigger priorities, namely getting to know his new baby daughter, Dayja, who was born five months ago. On Father's Day this Sunday, you'll find him soaking his feet in a backyard kiddie pool, holding Dayja while 3-year-old Braxton frolics in the water.
The Blake family might eventually take a camping trip to Yellowstone, but for now, Bradley is content to roll around the lawn with the kids and keep an eye on the baby-back ribs sizzling on the barbecue.
"After a year in Iraq, this is my idea of a vacation," he says during a recent Free Lunch chat with his wife, Evelyn, at their West Valley City home. "I've missed out on a lot of firsts. Now I have to catch up."
After an emotional midnight reunion at the airport 10 days ago when he returned home with the Utah National Guard's 145th Artillery, Spc. Blake took his family out to breakfast and reveled in the realization that he had his old life back. For now, anyway.
"I know I could get called up again anytime," he says, "but you try not to think about that. I just feel fortunate to have made it home safe in time for Father's Day."
A diesel truck mechanic who grew up in Salina, Bradley, 24, was trained to be a military police officer after his unit was deployed last June 12. Assigned to Camp Bucca, the largest internment facility for prisoners of war in southern Iraq, he spent much of his time in a guard tower, sweating in his uniform in the miserable heat.
"When we first got there," he says, "our tents took quite a few mortar and rocket attacks. So considering that, I suppose the tower really wasn't a bad place to be."
To avoid adding to his wife's stress level, Bradley left out most of the bad news in his e-mails home. The day before his unit left Utah, Evelyn Blake learned that she was expecting their second child. Bradley had gone with her to every doctor's appointment before son Braxton was born, but this time, she'd be alone.
"It's one part of the military that nobody likes," she says. "You hear about babies being born while their dads are away, but you never think it's going to happen to you. Having him gone for the entire pregnancy was like having the rug ripped out from under me."
Fortunately, Bradley was given a short leave and made it home in time for baby Dayja's induced birth on Jan. 7. But four days later, like a bad dream, he was back in the guard tower, looking out over the prison plunked down in the desert outside the city of Umm Qasr.
"When the wind blows," he says, "it's like somebody turned a hair dryer on high and stuck it in front of your face. On my worst day there, it was 128 degrees."Now that he has an icy drink in one hand and his baby daughter in the other, "I feel like a rich man," Bradley says. "No other Father's Day present can even come close."
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