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Janesville couple stay connected during husband's 10th deployment


Last year, Heather Baker gave her husband, Dustin, a calendar.

She marked all five of their children’s birthdays and listed what they liked and their favorite colors.

Using a big black Sharpie, she circled the 28th of every month to remind him: That was their date night.

It was one way Heather said she and their family could stay connected to Dustin while he was more than 6,000 miles away in Iraq, where he served as a helicopter pilot on his 10th military deployment.

“Just because you’re not here doesn’t mean that we can’t have a date night,” Heather said.

When Dustin first deployed with the U.S. Army in 2003, “communication back home was very scarce, if any,” he said. It was usually by satellite phone, and he had about 10 to 15 minutes per week to call home.

Technological advancements over the last 15 years have made daily communication—and monthly date nights—possible. Whenever he can access the internet, Dustin can order pizza to Janesville. He can buy a movie on Amazon and have it arrive on the 28th of the month.

Communication is vital for keeping their family and marriage strong, Heather and Dustin said. They have been married for five years, but—by Heather’s calculations—they have shared the same physical space for only about 11½ months.

Early last month, the Bakers drove around Janesville to look at Christmas lights. Clara, 13, was in the front seat FaceTiming with Dustin on a cellphone.

Christmastime is family time, but Dustin wasn’t sure he could make it home. Getting back to the U.S., the couple have learned, can be complicated and erratic.

He said he didn’t want to raise everyone’s hopes and then get delayed.

But he would try to get there.

Anthony Wahl 

Dustin Baker has his hat taken from him while holding his son Noah Baker, 1, inside their family room at their home in Janesville on Wednesday.

A family emergency

Dustin, 33, knows the desperation of not being able to get home.

During a 2016 tour in Afghanistan, if everything had gone according to plan, Dustin would have started his vacation two weeks before Heather was scheduled to go into labor. He would be home for a month—time he could spend with his newborn son.

But Noah was born more than a month early, Heather said. And with that came health concerns.

“I was struggling to get back as soon as I found out he was coming,” Dustin said. “(I was feeling) a lot of different emotions because of the circumstances of which he was born. There was a lot of ups and downs of: He’s doing OK. Now he’s not doing OK, move him up to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).

“(I was) just frantically finding any way possible to get back.”

Trying to recall his route, Dustin said it looked like this: Afghanistan to Dubai to Amsterdam (or Paris, one of the two) to Atlanta to Madison to his car to Rockford, Illinois, where Heather was in the hospital.

The odds did not look good for Noah. Heather said doctors gave him about a 15 percent chance to live.

“Seriously, at one point I thought he was going to die before I made it home,” Dustin said.

“He almost did,” Heather said.

Dustin missed Noah’s birth by two days.

While Dustin was overseas and on his way back, Heather had to face all the logistical challenges at home by herself—all while preparing for an emergency cesarean section.

“Where are the other children going to go? Who can take care of them? Who’s going to take me to the hospital?” Heather asked. “Who’s going to take care of the dogs? Who’s going to take care of the house?”

Noah will turn 2 years old soon. He is Heather and Dustin’s second child together, and they each have children from previous marriages. Although Noah has lingering health problems, he still runs around the Bakers’ house during a reporter’s visit, throwing a book and eating ice cream with his hands.

Experience has taught Heather how to pilot the ship on her own. And she had planned to celebrate Christmas without Dustin last month.

Anthony Wahl 

Dustin Baker sits with his youngest son Noah, 1, as he falls asleep at their Janesville home recently.

Chaos and quiet

Heather usually sits in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively.

“I have a hard time letting him drive,” she said, “just because I’m so used to being in control.”

Heather lives by the routine, the schedule, the “controlled chaos.”

“I don’t think I would know how to operate without it,” she said.

A firm routine is important because one deviation can throw everything off. A kid’s messed-up nap schedule can mean Heather doesn’t get to bed until midnight, for example.

As Heather explained this, Noah threw the book he had picked up. At various times, dogs barked, kids cried and both parents checked the time to make sure another kid was picked up on schedule.

Even when Dustin is in the country, his work with Columbia Helicopters requires travel. Heather said she used to work full time as a dental hygienist, but now she just fills in sometimes and also cares for other people’s kids on the side. She is also the vice president of the Rock County Moms Club.

The day is full of hustle and bustle: breakfast, school, gymnastics, ice cream and homework.

But then it stops.

“Nighttime is always the worst because from the time I wake up until I put the last one down, it’s just go,” Heather said. “Then you go to bed, and you realize: You’re alone. It’s quiet. And you’re just, kind of, you’re just by yourself. That’s when you’re lying in bed next to nothing, really.”

Heather has never liked silence.

After they got married, Dustin left for Afghanistan. He would shut down, go dark for days at a time and barely speak when they finally connected, Heather said.

“It was very cold,” she said. “You felt like there was, like, the first (deployment), we didn’t feel like there was a bond. Our relationship was falling apart, like we were strangers.”

It’s understandable that Dustin was so detached. The war was not all glory, he said. It was dirty and scary. He chose to shield Heather from it to protect her.

When he returned home, Dustin said they argued a lot. They had been married, but they hadn’t really been together.

“It got stressful for a while,” he said. “It took a lot of patience, I think, on both of us to work through it and just not give up on each other.”

Dustin said it takes “a lot of trust” and open communication “as much as possible” to keep relationships alive when one partner is in the armed services.

During his most recent deployment, Dustin said he stopped trying to hide everything from Heather. Even when he knew he would be off the grid for a few days, he let her know.

Technology helps Dustin stay connected to his family in Janesville. He messages with Heather and the kids every day. He FaceTimes, too, to help with homework.

Even if she’s not able to reach out and grab his hand, Heather said she still sees Dustin’s face every day.

The Bakers’ 3-year-old daughter, Gabriella, gave Dustin a stuffed sloth to keep him safe. Dustin took pictures with it overseas and even took it with him when he flew.

It was a piece of home.

That connection is important during those times—Fourth of July fireworks, Christmas lights around town—when Dustin can see home only through a screen.

Anthony Wahl 

Gabrielle Baker, 3, holds her stuffed, toy sloth closely as she heads to her bed. Her father Dustin Baker kept the toy sloth with him on his most recent tour of duty, where he hung the stuffed animal behind him in the cockpit of the Blackhawk helicopter he flew.

‘Daddy is gonna like it’

Don’t get their hopes up, Dustin thought.

Throughout his most recent deployment, he had told Heather he would be home sometime in January.

“If I come home before then, it’s a bonus,” he said. “Just don’t expect me home before Christmas.”

But on Dec. 19, Dustin called and asked for a favor.

“I said, ‘Sure, what is it?” Heather recalled. “He goes, ‘Can you pick me up at the airport tomorrow at 11?’”

Dustin said he wanted to surprise her. He took a bunch of selfies in the desert and sent them to her while he was traveling back.

Logistically, however, he couldn’t get home without getting a ride.

But that didn’t stop him from surprising his kids.

On Dec. 20, Heather drove to the airport and told Gabriella she had a big surprise for her.

“She goes, ‘Is Daddy gonna like it? Do you think Daddy would like it?’” Heather said. “I go, ‘I think Daddy is gonna like it a lot.’”

Gabriella thought they were going to the hospital because she associates parking garages with the family’s frequent trips to the UW Children’s Hospital in Madison for her brother Noah, Heather said.

They got out of the car, and Gabriella started piecing together where they were. She gasped and said, “My Daddy was here before,” Heather recalled.

They waited at the bottom of the escalators.

She saw him.

She ran to him.

“It’s a great feeling,” Dustin said.

Anthony Wahl 

Dustin Baker leans over to kiss his daughter Gabriella, 3, while placing the family’s two youngest to bed.

What next?

This has been Dustin’s life for about 14 years.

He has spent most of that time—eight deployments—with the Army.

Really, the military had touched Dustin’s life long before he joined. One of his grandfathers was in the Army, the other in the Marines, he said. His dad was in the Army, too.

Richard Harris, coordinator for student veterans and military services at UW-Whitewater, said 10 deployments is an unusually high number for a single soldier. He considers anything more than three deployments “rare.”

Harris said he worries that excessive deployments can cause mental harm to soldiers.

But Dustin downplays the number. He said he knows people with fewer deployments, and he knows people with more. He said as a pilot, some of his terms are only a few months long instead of close to a year.

He said if he doesn’t retire, he’ll probably deploy one more time.

For Heather, that means more controlled chaos at home without a partner. More FaceTime. More nights alone in bed.

Every 90-second viral video of a soldier coming home to his or her family is preceded by months of quiet, months of stress and months of “You won’t hear from me for a few days.”

But Heather has another piece of advice for couples in similar situations: have something to look forward to.

Such as Christmas.

Anthony Wahl 

Dustin Baker in uniform holds a flag that’s special to him. For his first seven years as an infantryman on duty overseas, Baker wore this folded flag between his chest and armor daily.

DACA is ‘probably dead,” Trump says


President Donald Trump escalated his rhetoric on immigration in Twitter messages Sunday that appeared to move him far from what days ago seemed to be a potential deal with Democrats and moderate Republicans.

“DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military,” Trump said, referring to legislation to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“I, as President, want people coming into our Country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT. No more Lotteries!” Trump said.

Trump was soon contradicted by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said on “Fox News Sunday” there’s still hope for a solution if Democrats would agree to close immigration loopholes.

“I do not believe DACA is dead,” Nielsen said. She said the Trump administration and congressional Republicans want “a security-immigration deal.” She also said it would be “completely irresponsible” for Democrats to demand that a deal be tied to keeping the government funded.

The immigration debate is taking place against a backdrop of controversy after Trump reportedly called Haiti, El Salvador and African nations “shithole countries” during an Oval Office meeting with senators. Trump denied making the comment in a Twitter post Friday, although the White House didn’t dispute the quotations after they were widely reported Thursday, and Sen Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the denial is “not true.”

Nielsen was at the Oval Office meeting but said she didn’t recall that specific phrase being used.

Less than a week ago Trump said at a televised, bipartisan meeting with lawmakers that he wanted a “bill of love” on immigration. He appeared to endorse a “clean DACA” bill sought by Democrats.

Since then, a hard-right flank of the Republican Party, led by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pulled the president back from the center.

The immigration debate is playing out days before a potential government shutdown as soon as the end of this week.

Brian Ray/ 

Iowa forward Carly Mohns, a graduate of Brodhead High School, plays in the Hawkeyes’ game against Michigan on Dec. 31 at the University of Iowa. Mohns, a senior, has battled through a number surgical procedures to stay on the court for her team. Story, Page 1B.

King's words still inspire nearly 50 years after his death


Though his voice was silenced nearly 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of nonviolence still resonates and inspires.

Decades ago, the famed civil rights leader—also regarded as one of America’s greatest orators—recalled driving one night from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his brother A.D. at the wheel. Most cars in the opposite lane failed to dim their lights, and his brother angrily vowed to keep his bright lights on in retaliation.

“And I looked at him right quick and said: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway,’” King told the congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama during a 1957 sermon.

“Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it?” King told the congregation. “That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs.”

More than a half-century later, in a world full of contentious politics, one of King’s memorable quotes remains relevant. It’s from his book “Strength to Love,” first published in 1963:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

The AP asked a half-dozen people in the cities where he was born and where he died to consider his words and talk about what they mean for today’s world.

Some were interviewed in Atlanta, home to King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church congregation and his office where Xernona Clayton organized protest marches and fundraisers. Others reflected on the quote in Memphis, in front of the Lorraine Motel balcony where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

‘Actionable love’

“When he says ‘hate cannot drive out hate, only light can do that,’ it recognizes that to be bitter about your circumstance is one thing. To retaliate based on your circumstance is quite another,” said Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, at the site of the old Lorraine Motel. “So, Dr. King reminds us that it is usually through love—actionable love—that we are able to make change.”

‘Demonstrate love’

“In order to fulfill a dream, it’s going to take a team that’s going to demonstrate love and not hate,” Cleophus Smith said.

Smith was one of the sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 after two of his co-workers were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck. King was in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers’ strike when he was slain at the Lorraine Motel.

‘You can’t come back . . .’

“You think about the grand scheme of things, you can’t fight hate with hate in the world we live in today. You can’t fight violence with violence,” said Mike Conley, a guard for the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.

“When people come and want to inflict hurt on somebody, you can’t come back and do the same to them,” Conley said. “Otherwise, we’re in this never-ending spiral that we’re in the middle of right now.”

‘Light and love’

“This is a time of moral reckoning in our nation. We must choose to stand on the side of light and love,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

“We have to stand up as Americans and say that we will stand on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, those who experience discrimination both historically, and presently,” he added. “This is our time, this is our moment to decide what kind of nation we want to be.”

He ‘really hated no one’

“He talked about love and hate so effectively,” said Xernona Clayton, King’s office manager in Atlanta. “Dr. King really hated no one. He loved everyone, he really did. He practiced it, and he preached it.

“So when he talks about what hate does versus what love does, it’s so applicable to today,” she said. “We have to drive out hate any way we can. We have to strengthen love any way we can.”


local • 3A, 6A

United Way extends grants

Staff at United Way Blackhawk Region believe extending their community grant funding cycle will help the organization have a greater effect on the community. Community grants in 2018 will be applied across 18 months as opposed to the standard one-year grant, according to a news release.

Past allegations spark debate

Lawyers in a child sexual assault case sparked by a thank-you letter at a school presentation are at odds over the relevance of other allegations of touching in the suspect’s past. Daryl J. Teska, 47, of West Bend is charged with first-degree sexual assault of a young child, child enticement, exposing genitals to a child and a related charge. The lawyers are battling over the timing and importance of past descriptions of Teska’s behaviors.

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Cold-shooting Bucks lose

Goran Dragic scored 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, and the Miami Heat held Milwaukee to its worst shooting game in nearly five years on the way to topping the Bucks 97-79.