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Fathers at war see children 'grow up in pictures'

Story Highlights

• Staff Sgt. Dustin Williams based in Baquba, an al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold
• Williams told 6- and 8-year-old sons he was fighting bad guy, helping Iraqi kids
• Spc. Chris Dech's sons send him drawings, notes about school and lives
• Soldiers to families: "Tell them I love them, and I'll be back real soon"
By Karl Penhaul
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SAMARRA, Iraq (CNN) -- Home has been reduced to a handful of photos, e-mails with the children, a homemade silver dog tag. When they can, the dads swap memories when no one is trying to kill them.

Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Williams was supposed to be home on this day -- Father's Day -- to feel the embrace of his four young children, but he couldn't. Like so many fathers fighting in Iraq, the essence of home has been boiled down to the basics.

"I get photos and videos in boxes and trinkets in boxes," says Williams. "That lets me know they're there and they care. That's something I can hold on to." (Watch how dads in Iraq enjoy first teeth, steps through photos Video)

It's a piece of life from the other side of the world, about 8,000 miles (12,900 kilometers) away from Fort Lewis, Washington. Williams relaxes for a few moments between missions to talk about his children. He's based on the outskirts of the city of Baquba, some 40 miles north of Baghdad -- a new stronghold for al Qaeda in Iraq.

"You watch your children grow up in pictures. That's pretty much what I'm doing," he says.

He flips through a small album of photos, showing off his children. Austin, 8, is in school, and his second son, Hayden, 6, is starting kindergarten soon. Williams' first daughter, Liberty, was born during his first tour in Iraq, in 2004. His second daughter, Morgan, was born in 2006, two months into his second tour.

One of his most cherished items is a silver dog-tag that his wife, Lena, had made. It's engraved with a photo of her and Morgan. He's told that his little girl's most treasured toy is a teddy bear from her dad -- a cuddly stuffed animal that belts out a recorded message from her father, saying "how much I love her."

"Morgan's already crawling, getting her first teeth and saying her first words. I'm missing all that," he says.

At 11 months old, Morgan is too young to comprehend where daddy is and for how long he will be gone. Not so for Austin and Hayden. The day he knew he was going to be deployed for a second time, Williams took each one out individually to eat ice cream and have a man-to-man talk.

He missed being home this Father's Day after his tour was extended because of deteriorating conditions in Iraq. He now hopes to keep his promise -- to be home for his boys' next birthdays.

"They don't know exactly what I'm doing. But they understand I'm off fighting the bad guys and helping the little kids of Iraq," he says.

But still, he wonders about his own kids. "When we're outside the wire [of the base], our minds are on one thing and that's the mission. When we're back here [on base], our minds are playing and we have time to think about the families," Williams says.

Family emergency far away from home

Army Spc. Chris Dech, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, understands. Deploying to Iraq while his wife was pregnant was tough enough. No sooner had he arrived in Iraq when Dech got word from home -- his unborn son might have a fatal deformity.

"We prayed about it and looked at it like whatever happens we have to deal with it," he says.

That was more than eight months ago. Baby Nathan is now doing fine. He has no fatal deformity, and doctors have carried out multiple surgeries to correct a cleft lip and cleft palate.

Dech was even there for the birth, but he's missed the corrective surgeries and many precious moments, like seeing him crawl or roll over for the first time. "It's the little things," Dech says.

Dech has two other sons, Peter, 7, and Samuel, 5. They keep in touch via letters -- most times they include a drawing of Spider-Man and a small note.

"Hi, Dad, how you doing?" Peter wrote in a recent message. "The whole class went to the gym. We had free play. My favorite thing was to climb the ropes. Bye, I love you."

While Dech misses his family terribly, he says he'll make up for it by cherishing every moment with his loved ones when he finally gets back.

"You learn not to take things for granted. When you go home and you're with them, you spend some quality time. That's how I plan to make up for it," he says.

What's their message on this Father's Day?

It was the same from both: "Tell them I love them, and I'll be back real soon."

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Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Williams is spending Father's Day on the outskirts of Baquba, Iraq, far from his wife and four children.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
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