CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
First Lt. Phillip M. Downey has a unique gift from Afghanistan for his soon-to-be-born son at home.
He is sending his upcoming baby boy the Stars and Stripes, which flew 50 feet above the Task Force Leatherneck compound here, April 28.
Downey is currently serving a year deployment to Helmand province with 1st Marine Division (Forward) and said he doesn’t think he’ll be able to make it home in time to see his son born, so he dedicated a flag to him.
“One day I want him to understand that there was a reason why I wasn’t there,” said Downey, a 25-year-old St. Louis native.
Downey is combat engineer officer by trade, but serves as a fragmentation order manager working in the combat operations center at the Task Force Leatherneck compound – the ground combat element command and control cell for Marine operations here.
He deployed to Afghanistan in February, a few weeks after his girlfriend, Megan Black, broke the news that she was pregnant. Although he said it was exciting news, the days leading up to the deployment was “interesting” to say the least. Quickly, the two planned for the best way to care for Black during her pregnancy, as Downey’s deployment date wasn’t budging.
“Those were some pretty crazy times,” Downey said. “A lot of phone calls; a lot of getting stuff ready and situated. I didn’t want her on her own with the baby coming.”
Black moved in with her parents, who didn’t live too far from Downey’s home station at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. Downey said he’s glad it worked out well.
His demanding job involves tracking and coordinating mission orders from the command element of the Marine air ground task force in Afghanistan. From there, orders continue through the operations center, tasking subordinate units with specific orders directly impacting the mission of coalition forces a part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Downey said his hours are very dependent on the daily plans of Regional Command (Southwest), a coalition headquarters element here manned by I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), and Task Force Leatherneck, manned by 1st MarDiv (Fwd). With his odd working hours at the combat operations center, he said he rarely finds time to call home and communicates mostly online.
“We chat and exchange emails almost every night,” Downey said. “She emails me pictures and things of the doctor visits and ultrasounds.”
Downey said one of the biggest problems he faces at home is the time difference. On a typical day, when Downey’s shift ends at 9 p.m., it’s 9:30 a.m., in California. So, as one wake’s up to start her day, the other is just going to bed from an exhausting one.
“She only answers my emails late at night or early in the morning,” he said. “I try not to call during the day because she will wake up in the middle of the night, get herself up and together, and I don’t want to drag her out of bed in the middle of the night like that.”
As thoughtful as he is to Black, and as dedicated he is to the mission in Afghanistan, he saves room for enthusiasm about becoming a father. His son is due in September, the seven-month mark of Downey’s scheduled one-year deployment.
He said the flag he dedicated to his son will serve as a chapter in his family history.
“A lot of Marines dedicate their flags to their parents or family members who were former Marines,” said Staff Sgt. Anthony B. Triplett, the administration chief for the commanding staff of Task Force Leatherneck and manager of the flag program. “To receive a flag that has flown over a Marine base in Afghanistan for a day means a lot to those people.”
Downey’s lineage includes two grandfathers who served with the army in World War II, and two uncles who served with the army in Vietnam. He said he hopes his wartime souvenir to his son will be passed on for generations to come.
He plans to frame the folded flag in shadow box and hang it in his son’s room after he’s born.
Downey said he has a hunch that questions will evolve from his future curious 2- or 3-year-old of what’s hanging up on his wall, to 14 years later when his son is in high school and truly understands what the flag means.
Triplett, a native of Milwaukee, said flying an American flag for a day is a program available to all service members here. He encourages Marines to dedicate flags to loved ones at home who’ll value the flag as much as the Marine serving underneath their colors in Afghanistan.
The mission Downey serves may not compare to being at home during his girlfriend’s pregnancy, but he said an American flag that was flown from sunup to sundown in Afghanistan should be a priceless gift at Black’s upcoming baby shower.