The birth came suddenly on Oct. 3, more than two months early, and Cristal Wagenhauser's baby weighed less than three pounds.
But in the days that followed, as little Madison Rose struggled to live, her husband's employer said it could not grant him leave to be at his wife's and daughter's side.
That is because Wagenhauser's husband, Lance Cpl. Keith Wagenhauser, is a member of the U.S. Marine Corps assigned to an overseas unit that stands ready to back up troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unless the baby was not expected to survive, Wagenhauser, who grew up in Middle Island, would not be granted leave before his deployment ends sometime in the coming winter, military officials said.
"I'm being as strong as I can be, but he needs to be here for his daughter," said Cristal Wagenhauser, 21, as she clutched her child to her chest at Stony Brook University Medical Center. "If something were to happen, he would not ever get to see her. That would be devastating."
Capt. Clark Carpenter, of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in which Wagenhauser serves, told Newsday that personnel are typically granted emergency leave only in cases of imminent or actual death in their immediate family. He said since Wagenhauser's unit was deployed last May 15 to its undisclosed overseas location, 16 Marines have been notified of the birth of a child. He said none have been granted to leave.
Military deployments impose often excruciating challenges for families like the Wagenhausers, who must manage health and other emergencies while one or both spouses are away, often for months at a time. With America's fighting forces stretched by eight years of war, the Wagenhausers' situation is an example of how the need for military order often conflicts sharply with family life.
Last year, The Associated Press reported that 3.7 percent of more than 87,000 married Marines divorced in fiscal year 2008, up from 3.3 percent a year earlier.
The AP also reported that 15 percent of military personnel recently surveyed in Iraq said they intended to divorce when they got home.The Pentagon has counseling programs to help military couples communicate more effectively, and to bond again once they are reunited. In addition, family readiness officers are assigned to help couples obtain services needed to prepare for deployments, such as financial planning, day care, housing, or legal advice.
Cristal Wagenhauser prepared for her husband's deployment by moving back into her mother's Lindenhurst home from where they had lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C. But their planning did not fully prepare the Wagenhausers for their sudden parenthood.
Madison Rose was delivered by emergency Caesarean section Oct. 3 at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, after doctors could not control premature contractions. Doctors there considered her too premature for their facility - she weighed just 2 pounds, 11 ounces - and the baby was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit at Stony Brook University Medical Center.
The attending physician there, Dr. Sridhar Shanthy, said last week that she told Wagenhauser's superior officers by telephone that the baby's condition could deteriorate at any time, and urged them to allow the father to come home.
These are tense days for Cristal Wagenhauser. As she spoke with a reporter last week at Stony Brook, her daughter cried out. "It freaks me when she does that - she's so tiny," she said.