When Holly Steen called her husband last year to say she was pregnant, he had news of his own to share.
In February, then four months away, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Steen and about 500 other members of the 864th Engineer Battalion based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) would start a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
The nine-month deployments meant these soldiers would not be given the 15-day leaves — except in an emergency — they normally would get during a longer deployment.
That meant Holly Steen, 29, would have to struggle through a lot without Jeremiah: the last half of her pregnancy, the birth and then juggling the demands of a newborn with those of two energetic toddlers.
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“I panicked,” said Steen, who, after overcoming cervical cancer, had almost lost her second child at 20 weeks into her pregnancy. “I thought, ‘What if this isn’t easy? What if I lose the baby?’ ”
She was far from alone. More than 50 of the battalion’s soldiers wouldn’t be able to come back for their children’s births. Although military wives have stayed strong through the same type of bittersweet pregnancy before, the battalion commander’s wife, Amy Henderson, says the situation has become more common since nine-month deployments became the norm last year.
Hoping the pregnant women could create a bond among themselves, Henderson and her husband, Lt. Col. John Henderson, coordinated with Army Community Service to create the Pacemakers Pregnancy Support group before the battalion deployed.
Informal pregnancy groups have likely popped up at JBLM before, but Priscilla Nastasia, ACS’ Pacemakers contact, said it was new to integrate support from available Army services and nonprofits with the women’s gatherings.
“At a time when our Army is being asked to do so much, there is a real need for grass-roots assistance for families, and frankly, this is how it is done,” Nastasia told a JBLM newspaper before she started a new position in Germany this month.
At least two other units at the base have put together similar groups since Pacemakers formed, Nastasia said.
Steen and other Pacemaker mothers say meeting with a group of women whose partners are facing the same risks creates an understanding of what each woman is going through.
“There are times when you just don’t even need to say anything and they already know,” Steen said.
The Hendersons hoped the group of about 20 women would give fathers-to-be some solace as well.
“Letting them know that their families are going to be taken care of helps them concentrate on their mission,” said Amy Henderson. The battalion, part of the 555th “Triple Nickel” Engineer Brigade, was assigned to dismantle military posts to help wind down the 12-year war in Afghanistan.
When Natalie Gable befriended Holly Steen shortly before the Pacemakers started meeting, she was sure Steen would be the only one coping with pregnancy while their husbands were deployed. Gable and her husband, Sgt. Nick Gable, weren’t planning to give daughter Sofia, now 2, a sibling until after he came back.
But about a month before the battalion left, Natalie Gable discovered she was pregnant, too.
“I was in shock for a few weeks — we had a plan!” said Gable, 27.
The two women had no idea what they were facing and they grabbed at the opportunity to prepare themselves at the Pacemakers meetings.
Although several meetings had speakers from places like Madigan Army Medical Center, the women’s favorite part was socializing, often past the scheduled meeting time, as they watched each other’s children.
“Those were some of the only times I could completely relax,” said Gable. “You don’t have time to be tired when you’re doing this. You can feel very alone.”
The meetings also brought together women who understood each other in a way no concerned civilian friends or family could, they said.
“They’ll ask, ‘So is your husband going to be there for the birth?’ ” Steen said. “And that is the worst possible question you could ask a nine-months-pregnant military wife.”
That’s why, even though they had the support of family, Steen and Gable planned to be at each other’s births.
Gable missed the birth of Steen’s son, Camden, on a Friday in April because of a family emergency that took her home to Oakland, Calif. But she rushed back that weekend to help Steen, who was terrified to leave her house with three children and overwhelmed with guilt that she might not be able to give son Kayson, 2, and daughter Austan, 3, enough attention.
Gable persuaded Steen to run an errand with her and all four children and then eat at a pizza parlor. Steen said that’s where she finally gained the confidence that she could handle her kids all at once.
Gable and Steen, who have visited each other’s homes almost every day since January, have become so close to each other’s children that Austan Steen
also calls Gable “Mommy.”
But bonding with her newborn was a challenge at first for Steen — until she went to what she remembers as her favorite Pacemakers meeting. While Gable watched Austan and Kayson at home, Steen went to the meeting with her new son to practice baby massage.
“Up until then it was like, ‘I hope you like that bouncer because that’s where you need to be,’ ” Steen said. “That meeting is when I finally got to connect with my baby — it was OK for me to connect with just him.”
When it was Gable’s turn to go into labor in August, Steen drove her to the hospital and held her hand during the birth. Gable said Steen’s presence at the birth of her daughter, Delilah, kept her steady.
“Most of my friends and family just can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to do this without your husband here,” Gable said.
More than 50 fathers in the 864th Engineer Battalion returned to JBLM this week to see a new child for the first time. About 250 soldiers came home early Tuesday morning and another group of about 250 flew in with Steen’s husband Wednesday afternoon.
Holly’s plan was to stay put so it would be easier for Jeremiah to find her in a reception hall full of families and friends. But as soon as the soldiers were released, she darted into the crowd.
After searching for him for a few minutes, she saw him standing on a small bleacher and gave him his first in-person look at 6-month-old Camden.
“It’s surreal — I still kind of can’t believe it, but it’s amazing,” Jeremiah said, while Kayson ran around his feet. “This one is even more weird. He could barely walk or talk when I left and now look at him.”
Even with their husbands home, Steen and Gable know they’ll still lean on the bonds they created in the pregnancy support group.
When Gable’s husband came home on an advance flight earlier this month, she had to learn how to carefully let her husband adjust not only to a new child but to a 2-year-old who can now talk.
“There’s still a few cobwebs in my head that need to be knocked out,” said Nick Gable at the Wednesday homecoming.
Henderson said she’s watched the mothers stay in contact with her and each other to chat and share advice as their children grow as well.
“No one really wanted the meetings to end,” said Henderson. “Once a Pacemaker, always a Pacemaker.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.