Family, newborn son greet sailor on return to BR

Walker native sees son for first time

As the sun set Sunday night, Brantley Crawford struggled to keep his eyes open for a milestone moment he’d never remember, but that he’d surely be told about in the years to come.

The 2-week-old infant, swaddled in a blanket with an anchor on it and dressed in miniature “dress blues,” whined softly every few minutes awaiting the arrival of his father, whom he’d never met.

Finally, Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Crawford, 22, a Walker native, appeared atop an escalator at Metro Airport clad in matching “dress blues,” his U.S. Navy uniform. And if baby Brantley was still crying, the noise was drowned out by the joyous shrieks of his grandmother, Vickie Dove, welcoming her son home from a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf.

But before the sailor could hug his mother, he had to meet his infant son for the first time — a greeting he shared in a long, tight embrace with his wife of two years, Ashley.

“It’s good to be home,” Justin Crawford said, “It’s been a long six months.”

The sailor, surrounded by friends and family, said he tore through a pack of gum as his plane approached Baton Rouge from Charlotte, N.C., around 6 p.m. Sunday, nervously anticipating his first face-to-face meeting with his son.

Throughout most of his wife’s pregnancy, Crawford was on the other side of the world, working on the gas turbine engines aboard the USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), a guided-missile destroyer named for the five brothers who died aboard the USS Juneau during World War II.

Crawford tried to get back early for his son’s birth, but it just wasn’t happening.

“We were in Portugal the day he was born,” Crawford said.

He communicated with his family via Facebook, viewing pictures of baby Brantley and messaging his loved ones.

It wasn’t until the ship docked on Dec. 23 at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., that the sailor was able to see his son move for the first time during a video chat.

“It was as exciting as can be,” Crawford said, adding that nothing can compare to Sunday night, when he actually held his child for the first time.

In Crawford’s absence, his mother and stepfather stepped up to help out Ashley Crawford during Brantley’s first couple weeks out of the womb.

It wasn’t the first time the couple had cared for a newborn grandchild who hadn’t yet met his father. Justin’s older brother, Joshua Crawford, a U.S. Army veteran, was in Korea in 2003 when his first son, Matthew, was born.

In both cases, Vickie Dove gladly watched over her grandchildren alongside her husband, himself a U.S. Navy veteran.

Dove said she cried all day awaiting the return of her youngest child, whom she hadn’t seen since her birthday in March.

“It’s nice when he’s here because I feel like my family’s complete,” Dove said. “There’s a part of the family missing when he’s not here.”

Before joining the Navy, Crawford worked as a tree-cutter after graduating from Walker High School in 2010.

Eventually, though, he decided he wanted to “do more with his life and see the world,” Dove said.

And see the world he has, with stops in more than 30 countries in two six-month deployments — the first in South America — since joining the Navy in the summer 2011, said Ralph Dove, Justin’s stepfather.

“Once he decided to go Navy, I told him that was the smartest move he could make,” Ralph Dove said.

For his part, on Sunday, Crawford was just glad to be home.

“I couldn’t stay still. My feet just kept shaking,” Crawford said of the plane ride, which lasted about two hours, “but it felt like forever.”

Now, he plans to spend as much time as possible with Brantley before his young family heads back to Florida, where he’s based, in a little more than a week.