LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
River Blake Connelly was five months old when her father, Lance Corporal Jason Connelly, a rifleman of the Marine Corps, held her for the first time. Away on overseas deployment for her birth, this Christmas was a homecoming the Connellys will never forget.
Jason Connelly returned home on Dec. 16.
“He walked up and I handed her to him and she put her hand up on his face,” his wife, Whitney Farris-Connelly of East Bernstadt, said.
“It was like a dream…she looks a lot like me with big blue eyes and it was just amazing to see her up close,” Jason said.
Jason got the news he was going to be a father while aboard a U.S. Navy ship surrounded by uncertain waters.
“I was really shocked at the time, really happy. I told one person but I couldn’t really tell anybody,” Connelly said.
Due to Operations Security aboard the ship, Connelly was not allowed to contact family or friends — or have outside contact of any kind — for two weeks. He waited until a short leave before his first deployment to the Middle East to spill the beans.
He and his wife, Whitney, married on Jan. 21, 2012.
“The very next day we told everybody we’re having a baby,” she said.
The couple had met a year prior, through Whitney’s cousin, Ethan Lewis, also a Marine.
“Jason would come back with him whenever they had leave, and we started talking then,” Whitney said.
Jason said it was meant to be.
“We (he and Ethan Lewis) were in the same company, same battalion and initially the same squad,” he said. “If I hadn’t been quite as close to him, there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t have come to Kentucky and I wouldn’t have never met Whitney.”
Jason grew up in England as a dual U.S. citizen. Most all of the men in his family were members of the U.S. military, married to American women. So, he said, it wasn’t a hard decision to become a U.S. Marine. Although, with a far different upbringing than Whitney, he was astounded at how much they had in common. He also found humor in the fact that he carried on his family’s tradition of marrying an American woman.
Jason was deployed in March 2012 for seven months, but the tour then turned into eight. Meanwhile, Whitney was home, preparing for the baby’s birth and her new life as a Marine Corps wife.
Months passed by as Jason and Whitney longed to be together, speaking on the phone as much as possible, but Jason had to stay on task, always putting the Marine Corps first.
On July 28, Whitney went into labor and Jason unknowingly called her half-way across the world at the exact moment their daughter, River Blake Connelly, was coming into the world. While Whitney gave birth, her mother and best friend were relaying the news to Jason over the phone.
In late November, nearing the end of his deployment, Gaza and Israel began heavily bombing each other. With five days left, he was sent to train with other armed forces in the deserts of Kuwait and Jordan, awaiting orders of another possible combat mission.
“Having a child born and having a wife, my mind had been completely set on coming home…At first I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “On deployment, you try to learn how to deal with keeping your guard up because you have to realize that you’re going to be away and there’s nothing you can do about it. I allowed my guard to go down and I started thinking about Whitney more and River more.”
Whitney then began faithfully watching the news for a cease fire in the Middle East.
“I didn’t want River to get any bigger because he was missing out on things. I just felt like I was left dangling there, and there was no date,” she said.
Just days before Christmas, the ship captain made a spirit-lifting announcement -- everyone was coming home for the holidays. Upon the day of arrival on Dec. 16, a dense blanket of fog shrouded the harbor and there was a disappointing delay. The anticipation was too much for Jason and he said he felt like jumping off the ship and swimming up into the arms of his severely missed family. Hours later, he met his five-month-old baby girl.
The Connelly family will be moving to Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, N.C., but hope that in three years with the Marine Corps they can begin building a home beside Whitney’s mother in East Bernstadt on the Farris farm.
“I love when I come out to Kentucky. It’s an open area and freedom, so I really want her (River) to grow up amongst that and teach her about England, too, because that’s my heritage. But ultimately, America’s a place for her,” Jason said.