Lots of American soldiers have fainted in the Saudi desert because of the heat, but Army helicopter mechanic Eric Henry was doing fine -- until he heard about the triplets.
"When I first found out, they made me sit down. They were afraid I was going to pass out," Henry recalled yesterday, surrounded by his three new babies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I thought maybe the Red Cross mixed up the message."
The Army gave the 21-year-old soldier special permission to fly home this week because of the unusual birth and the fact that two of the three infants initially were in intensive care.
"A lot of people couldn't come home when their babies were born, and missed birthdays and anniversaries," he said. "I feel lucky."
Of the triplets, Megan, the healthiest, is also the tiniest, at 3 pounds 3 ounces. The two others, Matthew and Micah, each weighed just over 4 pounds -- about the size of a helicopter radio -- Army Specialist Henry said. Matthew was taken out of intensive care yesterday and Micah is soon expected to be able to breathe unassisted, said the children's mother, Colleen Henry.
When she was told about the triplets on the delivery table on Oct. 6, Colleen Henry said she was as surprised as her husband. "I thought they were kidding," she said. "Twenty minutes before delivery, I had a sonogram and they said they saw two babies, both head down and ready to go."
Denny Hartung, one of the physicians who attended the birth, said that "two teams of doctors were already working on the first two babies" delivered by Caesarean section, when someone went back to the mother and noticed "a third head."
Hartung said there is always a flurry of activity around multiple births, but even more when a surprise baby arrives. Triplets arrive in one in every 7,400 pregnancies in the United States.
Lt. Col. Steven Titunik, the Department of Defense spokesman, said so many soldiers' wives give birth while their husbands are abroad on duty that most troops are not allowed back home for such events. But the guidelines for home leave, which permit a return home for family deaths and medical emergencies, are "tempered with good sense," Titunik said, adding that extenuating circumstances, such as triple births, are taken into account.
"I got a lot of teasing and razzing before I left" to come home, the soldier from Sterling said. "Everyone was calling me 'Daddy.' " The couple also has a 2-year-old daughter, Corinne.
Surrounded by beeping infant monitors, isolette baby incubators, and a jumble of hospital tubes and technology, Henry said yesterday that he felt more at ease with Apache helicopter parts: "I'm used to the other stuff; this stuff scares me."
Asked to described his first month in Saudi Arabia, he turned to his wife and said: "I haven't seen a woman yet."
"A good thing," piped up Colleen, 24. "That is fine with me."
Before Eric Henry left with the 12th Aviation Brigade to the Middle East, he was stationed in Germany, where Colleen planned to join him before she gave birth. Until he arrived Thursday, they had not seen each other since July.
When Henry left his brigade, he was armed with 40 letters that friends wanted him to mail and 30 telephone messages they asked him to make. The messages range from "Happy Birthday" to "Please send Kool-Aid."
The desert heat has forced soldiers to drink more than seven quarts of water a day to avoid dehydration, and Henry said they are so sick of water that they want anything to flavor it.
Drink mixes, snacks and magazines are at the top of Henry's list of items to take back to Saudi Arabia on Oct. 26, when he rejoins more than 200,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in the Middle East.
Henry said the bad news is that "everybody is scared," not knowing when or how the crisis will unfold. The good news for him, he said, is that for the moment, he's home.