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."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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