INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey --
Many military men and women have to be away from their loved ones for months at a time. The wait to reunite can feel like an eternity.
His wife was due to give birth Dec.17, but he would not be able to depart Incirlik until Dec. 10. The issue he had to face was people moving to their next duty station and taking precedence over his leave.
“I was worried for months about getting a seat on the rotator,” he said. “Not only was I going home, but I had to be home in time to witness the birth of my daughter. It was very important to me to be there on time.”
For the first six months of his tour at Incirlik Air Base, Staff Sgt. Timothy Kirchner felt the weight of being separated from his wife, two daughters and soon-to-be-born third daughter.
“I just thought that if I miss this rotator, and I’m not there for the birth of my daughter,” he said. “What kind of dad am I? That was my preoccupation and additional duty for the first six months I was here. It was making sure that I could get home on time.”
The day prior to his projected leave date, he was seeking options for a way home over the phone with the base’s passenger terminal. Due to a fully booked rotator aircraft, his only option was to hop onto a C-17 Globemaster headed to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., or miss his chance to get home on time.
“Charleston is only a two-to-three hour flight from where I live in Virginia,” he contemplated. “I’m like … do I risk it?”
He decided to book a flight from Charleston to Virginia and jumped on the military transport aircraft. He flew an uncomfortable 11-hour journey on a mesh jump seat headed to Charleston.
Upon arrival, a friend that lives in the area drove him to the Charleston Regional Airport for his final flight.
“I made it home on time,” he said while smiling. “I got home at 10 o’clock at night. So obviously, my wife is thrilled to see me. At the time, my four and 10-year-old daughters were asleep. They didn’t know I was home.”
The only family who knew he was home was his wife, Sarah, and dog, Leo. The plan was to surprise four-year-old Isabella and 10-year-old Alyssa at school. He first surprised Isabella at preschool, and then Alyssa.
“I had to stay in the bedroom to hide,” he said. “It was a weird, conflicting feeling not seeing my babies for six months and listening to them talk right outside the door. I was dying a little inside because I just wanted to burst out of the door and scream, ‘I’m here, I’m home!’ I missed them so much… just hearing their voices made me cry.”
He brought his uniform with him for the purpose of surprising his children at school.
“My daddy is silly,” said Isabella. “I love him because he’s my daddy. He takes me to Chick-fil-A and museums and stuff. He gives me hugs and kisses.”
Tim dropped by to surprise Alyssa shortly after.
“My daddy is very special to me because he is nice, caring and protective,” said Alyssa. “I love him very much! I love to go on errands with him and go anywhere with him because he is fun to be around.”
After a few days of many hugs and kisses, the family prepared for the arrival of the newest member of their family. Tim remembered the difficulties they encountered when Isabella was born.
“Isabella was born with a hemoglobin level of four, and 19 is normal for newborns,” he explained. “She had blood but not enough for her heart to work properly--her skin was as white as a sheet of paper. After 10 days in NeoNatal Intensive Care, we felt an overwhelming sense of relief when she recovered. We were so excited to bring her home.”
Due to the perceived size of Emily, their soon to be born daughter, doctors believed that she would be too large for a natural birth. To prevent any complications, they planned for Sarah to have a cesarean birth.
Although most would worry during an emergency cesarean birth, a planned cesarean birth is a safer approach, he explained.
After everything was set in place, the delivery was a complete success.
“When my wife and I first saw Emily, we both burst into tears,” he reminisced. “We were so happy. For anyone that’s been there, she was purple and crying. The staff took her to the side of the room to clean her off. Every time we heard a cry, the more my wife and I blubbered with tears.”
He proudly recounted a moment of fatherhood for his new baby while his wife recovered from childbirth.
“I remember my wife was exhausted and Emily wouldn’t stop fidgeting so I pushed her around in a baby stroller,” he said. “She seemed to like the mild rumbling of carpet and it put her right to sleep. For 40 minutes, I’m out there just walking around like a zombie and pushing my daughter.”
He enjoyed every moment he could with his family until the impending day he had to leave them again to continue the mission back at Incirlik.
“Leaving home was very difficult to say the least,” he said. “I was protecting myself by trying not to feel anything. During our last hours together, I wanted to be present for them, physically and emotionally.”
The family was together up until he was about to walk through security to get on his flight. That was the moment all his emotions hit him like a ton of bricks.
“I had to say goodbye to a two-month-old baby,” he said. “That was really hard. Everyone was crying and my baby was just looking around. One of the last times I was hugging Emily, I just remember smelling her. Smelling her neck and clothing. A baby’s smell is very distinct… milk and a little spit up.”
At that moment, Sarah thoughtfully removed Emily’s onesie and stuffed it in Tim’s backpack.
“It was soul crushing,” he explained. “My daughters are very resilient, strong and understanding young women, but it broke my heart to leave my girls. It felt surreal though, like it was happening to someone else.”
Tim currently serves as Incirlik’s American Forces Network non-commissioned officer in charge of radio operations, where he ensures that information flows out onto the radios for Incirlik and local residents.
“I do the best job I can,” he said. “It’s my first time being the NCO in charge of something and also my first time having troops that fall under me. I have two troops … and luckily they’re awesome.”
Although he is enjoying new experiences as a leader, returning to his family is his top priority right next to accomplishing his mission.
Every now and then, he goes through his drawer and looks at his baby girl’s onesie. The scent brings him back to the moment he said goodbye to his family in a way that photographs and videos can’t provide.
“I still have it and haven’t washed it,” he said. “It was Feb. 16 when she did that and it still smells like her. Every few days, I’ll smell it. Every now and then, when I’m really missing them. I’ll put it out and it smells just like her.”
“It’s a sensory that is just so tied to memory and feeling. There's nothing like that smell of your baby ... it was very hard to leave my family.”