By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun
5:01 PM EDT, May 26, 2013
As the hospital ship USNS Comfort motored up the Chesapeake Bay, Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class Josh Cackowski was eager to see his son — and anxious about how the 18-month-old might react to him.
Cackowski had celebrated Jakob's first birthday before leaving for the Iraq War, and had been around to see the boy take his first steps. He had stayed in telephone and e-mail contact with his wife throughout the five-month deployment, and had been getting regular updates on their son's achievements and adventures.
But as he returned home, the new father wondered whether the boy would remember him.
"It was a lot of anxiety," Cackowski recalls. "Just because, you know, I don't know how kids are at that age."
As it turned out, he needn't have worried. Josh, in his Navy dress whites for the homecoming a decade ago, and Jakob, in his tumbling blond curls, shorts and sandals, hit it off.
And their joyful dockside reunion at the Canton Marine Terminal, captured by a Baltimore Sun photographer and reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, would provide a bright, hopeful image in the early days of the long Iraq War.
"The happy, charming scene … must be given wide distribution," Severna Park reader Marjorie Sutton wrote in a letter to The Sun. "What a wonderful front page it afforded us."
As the image spread, Cackowski received letters, drawings from schoolchildren, and thank you notes from across the country.
On Memorial Day, he remembers that time.
"I think of my service," the Minnesota native, now 35, out of the Navy and settled in Maryland, says in the dining room of his Calvert County townhouse. Eleven-year-old Jacob, his blond curls now falling in long ringlets, listens and nods along.
"But most importantly," Cackowski continues, "I think of the ones that have given the ultimate sacrifice, and are gone. I'm just lucky to be home. And to have Jake, and all that good stuff."
Cackowski separated from Jakob's mother in 2006 and left the Navy in 2008. He settled in Solomons to be near his son; he and his ex-wife share custody.
After working in fuels in the Navy, Cackowski is now a shift supervisor at the NuStar Energy oil terminal in Piney Point.
Jakob's not interested in following his father into the Navy. He wants to be a herpetologist — a scientist specializing in reptiles and amphibians.
Sitting at the dining room table, the pair seem to share the same easy rapport that was captured in the 10-year-old picture.
Cackowski had expected to be around for more of his son's infancy. After training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., and traveling the world aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation out of San Diego, he was ready for shore duty.
He arrived at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland in October 2001. His wife, Danielle, was seven months pregnant.
"I had come with the intention of working 8 to 4, and being home every day," he says. "I was like, 'Sweet, I can enjoy the first three years of his life.'"
But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the nation was at war in Afghanistan, and would soon invade Iraq.
"I got attached to another boat and wound up going out to sea more," Cackowski says.
Jakob was born on Dec. 4, 2001. During his first year, Cackowski deployed with the Comfort as a flight deck supervisor for three months in Europe.
Then came Iraq. Sailors and medical personnel from around the region were ordered to the hospital ship, which motored from Baltimore to the Persian Gulf in advance of the U.S.-led invasion.
Jakob had just turned 1. Cackowski said goodbye, again.
"I wasn't too happy about it, but it was my job. I had to do it," he says. "It wasn't something I was looking forward to."
Technology made the separation easier, allowing Cackowski to call home, email and see family photos.
Still, he says, "it's never fun. You're missing out. You know, you see the pictures of cute, funny stuff, the little trips he goes on with his Mom, that I would like to have been part of."
The Comfort spent five months off Iraq, treating Americans and Iraqis, before returning to Baltimore on June 12, 2003.
A Sun reporter described the homecoming: "The USNS Comfort and its crew reappeared through a summery haze yesterday and pulled into a home berth packed with hundreds of cheering friends and family members.
"The crowd at Pier 11 in Canton spotted the red cross emblazoned on the Navy hospital ship's hull about 1:30 p.m., and finally let out whoops and hollers when the Comfort came into full view, with a line of white-clad sailors waving and straining against the railing."
They included Cackowski. He met his family beside the ship, and stayed with Jakob while Danielle went to get the car.
"I sat down on my sea bag and was kind of getting reacquainted with my son and he just, I don't know, organically, just was like picking up rocks and like giving them to me. And then I would toss them, and then he would start tossing them, and we were just going with it.
"I think he kind of knew who I was when I came back, but it was still kind of distant, because I hadn't been around for six months. So it wasn't like open arms, glad to see me, but he kind of knew that I was somebody.
"I think once we kind of bonded over the rock-throwing, he kind of regained his trust and remembered who I was, to a degree. And we hit it off."
Father and son were sharing a laugh when the Sun's Jed Kirschbaum took the photograph. It appeared on the front page.
"I didn't really think anything of it," Cackowski says. "Then, later that day, people were finding us and calling us."
"Stalkers!" Jakob interjects.
"There was a priest from Baltimore," Cackowski says. "I had an older woman from Florida call me and tell me how great the picture was. Then it went out on the wires, and a couple of weeks later, I was starting to get fan mail from school kids and teachers.
"That's kind of when it hit me that it was a good picture."
Jakob has no memory of the reunion, or of the first time he saw the photograph.
"It's just kind of been around," he says. "At school I was doing a research project, and I said, 'Hey, let me try and Google myself,' and it was one of the first images."
Packed away somewhere, Cackowski says, he still has a couple of copies of the newspaper, and big envelopes stuffed with letters.
"It's great that people were appreciative," he says. "I still don't really believe it."
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