War, baby

Like other wives of sports fanatics, Venessa Lewis used to hear an unending stream of scores, stats and trash talk even in her sleep. She readily admits she has loved watching something, anything, other than athletes in action lately. This includes King of Queens, because friends and family say she and Brent act just like the married couple on the sitcom: he the laidback jokester, she the sarcastic whip cracker. But even the advent of this thrill, this unmitigated control of the remote, can yield with speed and deference to an intense longing for the way things used to be: pregame, replays, overtime and all.

“When I am really missing him, I turn it on ESPN,” Lewis says. “Just to feel like he is here.”

Playing 1990s-era Jodeci can lift her spirits just the same. So can dressing her infant son Layden in one of a half-dozen outfits she bought with the word “Daddy” on it. These include “Daddy’s Little Helper” and “Daddy’s a soldier but mommy’s the boss.”

It is early February, and the chimes of AOL Instant Messenger sound like a kiss hello. Venessa leaves Layden content and smiling in his swing to sit down at her computer and type back to her husband, Brent.

Capt. Brent Lewis is stationed at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, the Company Commander for the Forward Support Company, 769th Engineer Battalion of the Louisiana National Guard. He is on a yearlong deployment, with another four months to go before seeing his family again.

“I miss Venessa and Layden the most whenever she tells me that he has done something new,” he says in an e-mail from Camp Liberty. “That is something I will never get to experience. I think it struck me the hardest when she told me he started laughing.”

For her part, Venessa never logs out of Instant Messenger. He calls once a week, but IM is her one constant connection to her husband, an anchor of her life filled with 3 a.m. feedings and too many unnerving trips to the pediatrician. Baghdad is nine hours ahead of Baton Rouge, so most conversations occur around 9 p.m. for Brent and noon for Venessa. They even work out a secret language for when Brent’s unit is leaving for a mission. “He’ll give me the code, and then I’ll know we won’t be talking for the next few days,” she says. “And I’m just worried the whole time.” Still she waits expectantly for the next chime and good news that her husband is safe.

“Brent just likes to know that I’m there,” she says. “Even though he’s thousands of miles away, if I have IM on, and he has it on, then it’s just like we know we are there for each other.”

IM worked for them in 2002 when Brent served in Afghanistan, and again when Katrina’s aftermath called Brent to New Orleans. “Venessa and I have had some bad luck when it comes to being separated for long periods of time, but I think we are the best-prepared couple I know.”

Already, though, this separation is proving more difficult. This one involves Layden, the child Venessa and Brent tried for four years to conceive. And Venessa admits that raising him alone is unlike anything she could have expected. “I’m literally like a single mom right now,” Venessa says. “And I never, ever thought I’d be a single mom in my life.”

Venessa found out she was pregnant Feb. 17, 2007. She remembers the date because it was the morning of the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade. Just a month earlier they had decided to see a specialist and undergone the first round of fertility drugs.

Venessa took the test early that morning, saw a negative sign and quickly pitched it in the trash before going back to bed. An hour later she heard Brent call to her. “Venessa! There’s two lines on here!” She hadn’t waited long enough for an accurate result. A doctor confirmed the pregnancy a few days later.

The excitement didn’t last long, though. The 769th, they heard, might be deployed to Baghdad. “That’s how it always starts,” Venessa says. “The rumors circulate.” Sure enough, only weeks after the good news of their pregnancy, they were rocked with the reality that Brent would miss the first eight months of the baby’s life, and without some stealthy maneuvering, maybe even the birth itself. When Brent enlisted he had never considered the effect long deployments would have on relationships. “Up until Sept. 11, 2001, the thought of being away from home never crossed my mind,” he says.

Brent and Venessa were married the summer before 9/11. He had served in the Army in North Carolina for two years, and the couple racked up an impressive long-distance phone bill before he moved to Baton Rouge to attend LSU with Venessa. “We didn’t talk about deployments a lot,” she says. “It was just assumed.”

Called to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002, Brent and the 769th served there eight months. As soon as he returned, Brent and Venessa decided to start a family. They had difficulty conceiving, and four years later Venessa never thought she would feel anything but joy waiting for her newborn. She was wrong.

With Brent’s deployment looming in the spring of 2007 Venessa is growing anxious. To make up for the time they will soon lose, Brent goes to every doctor appointment and ultrasound with her. They hold impromptu, private celebrations for holidays that are months away. They spend weeks designing the nursery.

Convinced she is having a girl, Venessa chooses the name London for the vacation they had taken years before. But when the ultrasound indicates a boy, Brent improvises and comes up with Layden.

That October, after training in Fort McCoy, Wisc., Brent’s unit is deployed to Baghdad. Venessa is eight-and-a-half months pregnant. She calls Brent’s commanding officer, Battalion Commander Maj. Keith Waddell, to plead her case. “You don’t know how important this is to us,” she says.

A soldier must be in country for three months before taking leave time, but Waddell assures Venessa he will get Brent home for the delivery. Relax and have some fun, he tells Brent. Now it’s a waiting game. And wait they do. Venessa goes 10 days past her due date, which makes scheduling Brent’s three-day trek home difficult. But he returns in time to be hanging out with Venessa when she starts complaining of stomach pains. It’s strange, she thinks, to have gas all day. At 10 p.m. they drive to the hospital where the nurse informs her that her pains are actually contractions. Layden is finally coming.

Brent is so excited he leaves in the early stages of labor to buy a camcorder. He’s not going to miss a thing.

Layden is born healthy and happy at

8 lbs. 3 oz. He looks a little like Brent, but more like Venessa. Soon he’s asleep in an LSU onesie, cradled with his dad watching the Tigers on TV.

Maj. Waddell calls Brent from Iraq to congratulate him. “Don’t worry about Baghdad,” he says. “Cherish this time with your family.” Brent’s guys are in the back of his mind, though. “You always think about the welfare of your fellow soldiers, especially in a combat zone,” he says.

Still, he is able to concentrate enough to care for Layden while Venessa rests. Luckily, his son spends those two weeks quietly sleeping. “This is going to be great, we thought,” Venessa recalls. “He’s an angel baby!”

Brent’s leave time ends quickly, though, and they find separating even harder now. “My love for Venessa grew so much in those two weeks, and when I saw Layden come into the world, I knew there was nothing that could tear our family apart,” Brent says.

Against every instinct, emotion, and desire in her body, Venessa drives Brent to the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. The new family takes a photo at curbside check-in. Brent holds Layden and gives a warm, but reserved smile. Venessa stands next to him. Her look is one of pride crossed with terror. Blank.

“After I dropped Brent off, I felt so alone,” she says. “That is the loneliest I’ve ever felt. You feel so vulnerable after you have a baby. You want to protect the baby, but I wanted to feel protected, too, and I felt that way when Brent was here.”

Her first month alone is a huge adjustment. Just trying to figure out her son is exhausting. As soon as Brent leaves, Layden begins violently vomiting almost daily. Venessa fears it is pyloric stenosis. After trucking back and forth to the pediatrician a half-dozen times, the diagnosis is acid reflux, and she switches Layden to a soy-based formula.

“It was hard trying to relay all this to Brent, because he doesn’t quite grasp the day-to-day,” Venessa says. “Though he does his best to try.” Venessa wants her husband to know what life at home with their newborn is like. She begins shooting videos of Layden using the camcorder Brent bought during labor and mailing the DVDs to Iraq.

Watching her videos and opening e-mails stuffed with baby pictures doesn’t put Brent in a somber mood. They reconnect him to his family, and he loves it. Eventually, Venessa sends more than 600 snapshots.

“I watched Layden grow up over e-mail,” Brent says. “Venessa sent a video of Christmas morning, and of course I was sad that I couldn’t be there, but all I could think of was how soldiers in past wars could have never been able to experience their families Christmas morning. So I was thankful for that.”

Brent is not the only new father at Camp Liberty. He and a handful of proud dads trade pictures of their children, and on occasion, talk of the longing they have for their families. But these are passing moments, fleeting glimpses of the husbands beneath the armor. They are in a war zone after all. Brent’s call sign is Warrior 6. He talks about his son so much, his soldiers switch Brent’s portrait in the command center for a snapshot of Layden with the call sign “Warrior 6 ˝.”

“It does help to know that I’m not the only one in the same situation,” Brent says. “I wonder if these babies know they are getting bragged on from halfway around the world?”

Brent’s grandmother Norma in West Virginia is ailing with lung cancer. Venessa has known for some time, but now no one is sure if Norma will live long enough to see Brent return. She can’t wait for summer. Venessa flies up with Layden so his great-grandmother can finally meet him.

Before delivering her baby, Venessa walked away from a full-time graphic design job at BREC. She’s working almost that much now, but from home as a freelance designer. The creative work keeps her mind occupied, but it’s no use. She misses her husband. Misses her life. She wonders what it would be like if they were a normal family, one that’s not in the military, she says.

As February leans into March, Layden begins hitting milestones almost weekly: rolling over, eating solids, and babbling like infants do when they try to mouth syllables. He’s also keeping Venessa up at all hours. She starts to feel a tinge of post-partum depression—or maybe it’s just that July still seems so far away.

“As thankful as I am to have this beautiful baby boy—I thank God every day for his blessings—I still feel so abandoned, exhausted, isolated,” Venessa says. “It is really wearing me down.”

They marked Christmas together last November, so Easter is the first real holiday Brent misses celebrating with Layden. Venessa gets in on a contest called “pocking eggs” with a group of friends from Avoyelles Parish. It’s a traditional Cajun game she vows to pass on to her son. Her parents have work, so she has Easter dinner with Brent’s mom Linda. They go to Piccadilly.

During the Afghanistan deployment Venessa tried attending the National Guard family support group, but it turned into one long gossip session, she says. And though the wives are nicer this time around, she has struggled to connect.

“I’m the type of person I rely on my family or friends I have already rather than strike up new friendships,” Venessa says. “Maybe I should have done that. I just haven’t.” Venessa’s best friend, Dana Patin, does live next door. They cook dinners together and talk often. When Venessa’s washing machine breaks, Dana’s husband fixes it. Venessa’s mother-in-law Linda is a registered nurse and lives nearby, unlike her parents in Marksville. Linda takes Layden one day a week so Venessa can run errands and clean the house.

On March 30 an IED explodes near a National Guard transport vehicle in Sadr City, killing one of Brent’s soldiers, Sgt. Terrell Gilmore. The loss is hard on Brent—he and Gilmore had been friends since Katrina—but he holds strong for his company. Linda calls Gilmore’s grieving mom to offer her support, mother-to-mother. “All of my soldiers have been through a great deal together, so when I lose one, it is like losing a child,” Brent says. “It is amazing how I can go from feeling like a rock for my soldiers to feeling helpless when it comes to my family. When Venessa tells me she is struggling, it is one of the hardest things for me to deal with.”

In May, Layden and Venessa are hospitalized with stomach viruses. Then a freak hailstorm damages their roof, which has to be replaced, and the TV and toilet both break. “That was my darkest hour,” Venessa says. “I was waiting for the locusts to come.”

With stress mounting in June, Brent and Venessa’s IMs turn to daydreams. He’ll have a full month off when he returns in mid-July, and he doesn’t want to waste a second. Brent writes a things-to-do list and e-mails it to Venessa. They plan a family trip to Destin. They sign up their mothers to watch Layden so they can vacation alone in San Antonio. “I’ve been once,” she says. “It’s a very romantic city.”

The Fourth of July is a big deal on Venessa’s street: cookouts and cold drinks. It is a high point among the lows of Venessa’s summer, a stretch of weeks in which she finds perhaps the most comfort watching a new Lifetime series called Army Wives. “It’s the story of my life,” she says. In this week’s episode the husbands return home after a long deployment, and it airs on the eve of good news. Venessa gets word from the Guard, the 769th is flying home July 14.

In a life of transitions, Venessa still worries about the one coming up. Layden will be eight months old, a stage where he may be anxious around strangers. “I try to make Brent understand we need to just have some time at home to let Layden get used to him again,” Venessa says. “You know, before we go toting him around the country.”

Venessa wakes up before dawn on the 14th. Layden has a minor ear surgery at 5 a.m., which leaves him a little groggy when they arrive at a hangar at Louisiana Aircraft to await the 769th. But Venessa is ecstatic. The yard signs and hand-painted “Welcome Home Daddy” banner are in place. The house is spotless. She’s glowing in a pretty, white cotton summer dress. She’s ready.

Held high, hand-painted signs block out the blue-gray sky outside the expanse of the hangar. Cub Scouts and cameras punctuate a crowd of a couple hundred people. A dozen young kids sit straddled on adult shoulders for a better view. A military brass band warms up as snare drums rattle.

Venessa moves through the crowd for a better view of the runway with Layden in her arms, her friend Dana, her mother Connie, and mother-in-law Linda close behind. Brent is an only child, and this reunion is just as important to his mom. “Whenever he’s overseas, I just think, ‘He’s at work,’” Linda says. “That’s the only way I can deal with it.”

The soldiers are mostly quiet on their commercial airline flight from Fort McCoy to Baton Rouge. Brent figures everyone on board must be dreaming about their families. But when the captain announces the final approach, a roar like no other erupts in the cabin. “Everyone cheered,” Brent says. “And then we touched down, and it was amazing.”

Stairs are wheeled to the door of the plane, and waiting for the servicemen are a dozen officers and dignitaries, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mayor Kip Holden, and LSU football coach Les Miles and his own young son, Ben. The door swings open, and the sound from the crowd matches the scream of a jet engine. Piercing.

Brent lets all of his guardsmen off first. Venessa cranes her neck as soldier after soldier reunites with loved ones. These last few moments move like months, but Brent finally descends the staircase. “There’s your daddy,” she whispers to Layden, who waves his arms sporadically at the red, white and blue regalia. Despite being warned not breach the barricade, Venessa takes off toward Brent with her son in her arms. She tears up. Layden starts bawling.

And then, suddenly, they hug. They kiss to a marching tune, and all three disappear into each other, eight months of embraces at once. “I can’t believe it,” Brent says, sighing. “I can’t believe it.”

A middle-aged veteran looks on as Brent and Venessa talk closely. He doesn’t even know the family, but he nods in affirmation. This, he says, is a very good day.

“I definitely feel like I’ve matured this past year, like I’ve aged 20 years,” Venessa says with a short laugh. “I hope it doesn’t show on my face.”

Two days later, 30 friends throw a party for Brent at Champps. Venessa’s parents tell her they have to work and can’t make it, then surprise everyone by turning up.

At the end of the week Brent and Venessa pack for Virginia so Layden’s great-grandmother—the one with cancer—can see him again, and see her grandson Brent. They were always close. Layden is coming off ear surgery, and it will be just his second time on a plane. This won’t be an easy trip, but it’s one they will make together.