SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. — New parents have a hard enough time dealing with crying, up-at-all-hours babies. Add to it, being a father in America’s 24/7 military, which requires you to keep odd hours, uncertain schedules and show up in a clean uniform and with a tough-as-nails demeanor.
So Air Force officials and several dads in uniform at Shaw Air Force Base are trying to help other fathers with a class that teaches them about the mysteries of mixing babies, spouses and life in a uniform. It’s dubbed “Dads 101” at the South Carolina base.
“The guys get a little nervous, they don’t know what to expect. I want to help them get their fears out in the open and out of the way,” said Tech Sgt. David Bellamy, one of the instructors.
The classes are offered several times a month and are sponsored through the Air Force’s community support services, which offers counseling on financial matters, family issues and the difficulties of military deployments. Other things that are available to new parents include home visits from nurses, classes on caring for newborns, yoga classes for the moms before and after birth, and childbirth classes.
But “Dads 101” fills a niche for the men, and is taught by other men in the Air Force. Airmen based at Shaw have been in the thick of the past decade’s repeated deployments, since it is home to the 20th Fighter Wing and the 9th Air Force, whose units have been deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bellamy said the class is straight-forward, and includes a video designed to help avert child abuse and “shaken baby syndrome.” The hope is that dads will understand how to deal with the stress that comes with raising babies.
“The video is hard to watch, but we have to tell them how to deal with the stress,” Bellamy said.
The father of a 3-year-old and a 16-year Air Force veteran knows his way around an F-16 combat jet as well as many child emergencies. He’s deployed around the world as a maintenance and avionics instructor and exudes an air of calm confidence.
The Buena, Texas, native said his postings in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Hungary and England over the years have given him a confidence about accomplishing tasks in the military. But like many other new fathers, the idea of handling a newborn “can make any military guy feel out of his element.”
Holding up a diaper bag he uses in his class, Bellamy shows some of the mysterious items that confuse new dads.
“We know how to pack a deployment bag in three minutes flat,” said Bellamy. “But tell a new dad to get a diaper bag ready and they are all thumbs. What, you mean we really need all these diapers, these clothes, this butt paste?” he deadpans, adding with a laugh, “Yes, I tell them, ‘You do.’”
“The guys learn how to change diapers, swaddle the infants. We just give them pointers,” said Bellamy.
Bellamy said it’s important for fathers to learn that an infant crying is natural, and that some children could have difficulties for weeks.
“You have to let them know it’s OK if the babies cry, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Military guys they want to solve the problem. They want an answer, they want to just get it done,” Bellamy said.
“With some of these guys, you can see a real look of anxiety on their faces,” Bellamy said. “But I tell them they have to be confident.”
Air Force civilian Patti Busser, who holds the title of Family Advocacy Outreach Manager, said the curriculum used in the class was developed in coordination with the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, which partnered with the Pentagon to develop a shaken baby prevention program in 2006 that could be used by all the services. On its Web site, www.shakenbaby.org, the group says its prevention kit has been sent to more than 600 military installations around the world.
The syndrome is a form of abusive head trauma that can result from violently shaking an infant by the shoulders, arms or legs. The whiplash that results can cause bleeding within the brain or eyes and a leading cause of child abuse deaths in the United States.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Williams, an instructor who is an intelligence analyst with 9th Air Force, said he draws on his background as the father of seven children to assure his cohorts that they can handle this new “mission” that’s before them.
“I tell them to just have some patience, that the important thing is they learn to take turns with their spouse and to give each other a break,” said Williams, from Little Rock, Ark., who has been in the Air Force for nine years and deployed for six months to Afghanistan.
Williams said he was interested in helping teach the class because he realized that Shaw had several support groups for mothers but none for the dads.
“The guys don’t get a lot of help and they need it,” said Williams. “It helps break through the stereotypes. They have to learn that dealing with a baby can be frustrating, but they have to learn it’s not something personal and not to let it get on your nerves.”
One student said the class came in handy, since he’d never taken care of children as he grew up and knew very little about handling a tiny person.
“I was just afraid I would break him,” said Tech Sgt. Richard Anderson, a 10-year Air Force veteran technician in the base’s mental health group.
Anderson said he knew he just had to deal with what he called “the normal fears” of raising a newborn. His son is three weeks old and “pretty wiggly,” Anderson said.
“The tips in the class were helpful. I’d never even changed a diaper,” said the Palm Coast, Fla., native. “I think it’s worked out fairly well.”
Anderson said the class gave him “a new respect for all the work it takes to deal with a child. My wife definitely needs the help.”