Dad Comes Home From Gulf To A Bigger Family

War In The Gulf

March 13, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Dr. Harry W. Johnson Jr. of Columbia, who makes a living delivering babies, missed the birth of own daughter.

The Navy lieutenant commander, stationed at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, was serving with the USNS Comfort, the hospital ship sent to the Persian Gulf.

Though he had never served on a ship and there was little need for an obstetrician in the war, that's where he was New Year's Eve, awaiting word on the birth of his second child.

On a hotel telephone in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the obstetrician-gynecologist got a call from his sister-in-law telling him that five minutes earlier, hiswife, Mary Jo, 33, had given birth to an 8-pound, 9-ounce girl, Molly Elizabeth.

Being able to receive the call was lucky, he said, because his ship was in port for maintenance.

Aboard ship, the only communication was by an expensive satellite telephone.

"Once the war started, they closed that down, so the only way you could find outwas by Red Cross message," Johnson said.

A fellow doctor receivedsuch a message 24 hours after his wife gave birth, he said.

"A lot of people who were on the ship that had babies had no contact with their wives," he added.

The Johnsons' 6 1/2-month separation endedFriday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Mary Jo -- an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital -- greeted her husband and took him home to the Dickenson neighborhood of Kings Contrivance Village.

Every tree in the cul-de-sac was decorated with yellow ribbons, and a red-white-and-blue "Welcome Home, Harry" sign stood in the middle of the street.

Johnson said he couldn't describe the experience of seeing his daughter for the first time.

Even after delivering more than 1,000 babies over six years with his own hands, "to comehome to see a new baby -- it's unbelievable," he said.

"I was in Japan last year, and I delivered a lot of sailors' wives," he added. "The guys were on ships, and I always felt pretty sorry for them. I never thought I'd be one of them."

Equally emotional was seeing hisson, Michael, who was 13 1/2 months old and barely able to walk whenhis 34-year-old father shipped out Aug. 21.

"When I left, he was hardly talking at all. All he could say was, 'Mommy.' "

During thelast half-year, Mary Jo Johnson said, she talked to Michael about "Daddy," but it wasn't until this weekend that Michael got to address "Daddy" by name.

She described making the adjustment, starting whenher husband received 10 days' notice he was leaving, as "horrible," not only because she was 20 weeks pregnant but also because the family had moved into their new home a month earlier.

"The day that he told me he was going to the Persian Gulf, I had come home with $500 worth of wallpaper, so I spent most of my pregnancy wallpapering," shesaid, adding, "I had to get my life really organized to get everything done all day."

She received help from her mother and husband's family and was coached through labor by her sister, Peggy Ilardo, andfriend Karie Hogan, both of Towson. Plans to videotape the birth to send to the Persian Gulf were thwarted by a need for a Caesarean section delivery.

Harry Johnson said that while pregnant troops were exempted from gulf duty, he ran a gynecological clinic on the ship. Itserved the 750 women aboard, all military branches in the gulf and U.S. embassy workers.

Probably the most exciting events were periodic mass-casualty drills, during which he served as a doctor in the casualty receiving area.

"I didn't want to see a bunch of young, injured soldiers come in," Johnson said. "All of us were prepared to do that, but nobody wanted to have that happen."

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