Cole Tesar couldn’t get home fast enough.
The Army specialist had been in the delivery room last year when his daughter was born Aug. 10, but by way of a shaky Internet connection, from his deployment in Afghanistan. For six months, he saw his only child in photos and online chats, but finally this week was able to hold baby Harper for the first time.
Harper was decked out in pink to meet her dad in person on Sunday, and her mom, Logan, fashioned a hot pink sign with a welcome home message inspired by the tune of “Call Me Maybe.”
As he moved through the crowd at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Cole thought the sign was “pretty clever,” but was more focused on finally getting to his wife and meeting his baby.
“It brought tears to my eyes, seeing her for the first time,” said Cole, 26. “I thought she was the most beautiful thing ever.”
Cole was deployed in July of 2013 for his first tour in Afghanistan. He was ready for duty, but leaving home was especially tough considering that Logan was pregnant with their first child. “I was there through most of the pregnancy," he said. “I had to leave one month before the baby was due … it was like stopping a race when you only have 50 yards left."
While the new dad has been getting to know his baby, a photo of Harper and her sign has been enjoyed by more than 1.5 million viewers on Facebook, where it was posted by a news station in the couple’s native Nebraska.
Cole had traveled home with several soldiers who were also excited to meet their children.
“There was quite a few of us that came home to new babies that they hadn’t met yet,” Cole said. “The flight seemed like it went very slow. We were all so anxious to meet them.”
Since arriving back at Fort Polk, Cole has jumped into hands-on parenting, getting up in the middle of the night, changing diapers, soothing the tears and holding Harper when she received her six-month vaccines.
Logan says her husband is doing a great job but was perhaps a little surprised, having never held a baby before, much less experienced an infant meltdown.
“I think he never realized how busy they are,” said Logan, 24. “He only saw her on FaceTime when she was happy. He didn’t see everything else that comes with it.”
Cole says his military training may have prepared him a little for dad duty, but he has also relied on the guidance of Logan and his own mom, who filled him in on what life with a baby would be like.
Returning home from deployment can be hard, and adjusting to parenthood at the same time can pose additional challenges. Soldier dads might feel helpless with family issues during deployment, and when they’re back, may be apprehensive around “the little person” and changing their diapers, said Ellisha Jones, lead New Parent Support social worker at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.
Still, she feels soldiers coming home to fatherhood find it “more exciting than stressful,” and touted the New Parent Support Program, which offers prenatal and parenting classes and other programs for military families.
“The transition for the soldier, I think it can be pretty seamless and easy as long as they’re realistic about it,” Jones said. “I think sometimes people can focus on the part about what they missed, but I think they should focus on what they are going to get to be a part of.”
Her advice to returning dads is to “take their time, to be open and honest about any, maybe, feelings of apprehension they have, to utilize the resources they have to them,” she said. “And to trust themselves, trust their instincts, their fatherhood instincts.”
Logan is teaching her husband how to care for Harper and taking a step back.
“I have to have a lot of patience,” she said. “I’m letting him kind of do it himself, and I try not to intrude too much and let him figure it out on his own and get that bond with Harper.”
Cole is relaxing a bit after his deployment and enjoying family life as he masters the baby ropes.
“Coming home to a new baby, you have to be patient and take it one day at a time and everything will go smooth,” Cole said. “Lots of patience. Every day is a new learning experience.”
Brittany Jones-Cooper of iVillage.com contributed to this report. Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter @lisaflam.