RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A lot of the troops Tom Bowman was with in Afghanistan will be marking today - Father's Day - far away from their loved ones. There will still be Happy Father's Day wishes over cell phones and conversations on Skype. That's how members of the 182nd National Guard regiment marked this day last year when they were deployed in Afghanistan. This year, they are home with their kids.
SPECIALIST BRYAN TOLLEY: When I wake up in the morning, I go in his room to get him out of his crib, it's just seeing his face light up when he sees dada come through his bedroom door instead of mama, 'cause he's so used to his mother. It's awesome. I love it.
MARTIN: At a recent National Guard event up in Massachusetts, some of the guardsmen spoke with us about the challenges of being both a soldier - and a dad.
TOLLEY: I wouldn't trade being a father for the world. It's one of the coolest feelings in the world - it really is.
MARTIN: Meet Specialist Bryan Tolley. He's 29 years old from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Tolley stood in the hotel lobby with friends from the deployment, as they took turns playing with his young son Ryan.
TOLLEY: You want to come see dada (unintelligible).
MARTIN: He's a shy, blonde 18-month-old who happily clings to his dad.
TOLLEY: It was tough at first. I mean, it's one thing to be prepared for a deployment. It's another to know that you're going to be leaving a baby behind.
MARTIN: Ryan was just a newborn when Tolley was told he was shipping out to Afghanistan.
TOLLEY: When we found out we were pregnant, it was the coolest feeling in the world but that was quickly shadowed by the fact that I was leaving in a few months.
MARTIN: Like other soldiers who've had to leave behind families, he missed a lot of firsts.
TOLLEY: First steps, first time eating solid food by himself. He started talking while I was gone too.
MARTIN: This was Tolley's first deployment overseas. His unit was in Zabul Province, which is relatively stable. Tolley said the nights over there were still - most of the time.
TOLLEY: I've learned a whole new definition of quiet - the creepy quiet.
MARTIN: Now, quiet has another new definition.
TOLLEY: It's the good kind of quiet - the quiet when he's sleeping.
SERGEANT MICHAEL CLARK: I'm Sergeant Michael Clark and actually this is my fiancee, Kaitlin.
KAITLIN FORANT: Kaitlin Forant.
MARTIN: Clark was deployed to Nangarhar Province near the Pakistani border. On this day, he's holding his son Michael Clark Jr., who tries to squirm free. And he's reuniting with the guys from his unit.
CLARK: What's going on, brother?
MARTIN: Afghanistan seems a long ways away.
CLARK: You're going to see a lot of love here, a lot of handshakes, a lot of hugs. It's a really big family. It's pretty much a big group of kids all in uniform, but we could love each other and I'm glad everyone came back safe.
MARTIN: And he's right - most of these soldiers are really young. And many, if not most of them, have kids of their own. War and fatherhood have forced them to grow up quickly. And sometimes the stress of those responsibilities can be overwhelming. Clark says it was tough when he first came home to his family. They had changed and he had missed it.
CLARK: Overnight, your lives have changed. Your family has gone on one more year. Your son has grown up one year and you kind of have to catch up.
MARTIN: Which is what these soldiers are doing. Yes, there is a lot of stress. Many of them are now looking for regular civilian jobs. Some are dealing with injuries - even PTSD. And a lot of them, like Brian Tolley, are learning to be fathers for the first time.
TOLLEY: Hi, monkey boy. Can you say hi? Are you going to be shy?
MARTIN: But unlike soldiering, this is a role that requires strength, endurance and sometimes complete surrender.
TOLLEY: The one thing I think is wicked cute is he'll actually blow kisses and he'll make the noise to go along with it. Hey Ry, Ry. Hey, can you blow kisses?
(SOUNDBITE OF KISSING NOISE)
TOLLEY: He's always laughing. He's always got a smile on his face.
MARTIN: And so does his dad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: For more on our Home Front series and to see photos of the families in this story, go to npr.org. Or you can like us on Facebook. Go to facebook.com/NPRHomeFront. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.