Soldier returns home amid daughter's brain surgery
Breanna Heeren looked around before catching sight of her father, Matt, who threw a pink blanket over her car seat. The 13-month-old promptly yanked it down with a slight squeal.
Sounds normal, but Breanna's life has been anything but since May, when her parents, Matt and Ashley, learned their daughter has cystic fibrosis, water on the brain and a chiari malformation - a condition where the brain is pushing downward on the spinal cord.
The infant has already had two brain surgeries with the last one coming last week, two days before Matt returned from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was training with his Army National Guard unit for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
The deployment has since been canceled, at least for him.
"I'm torn," he said Thursday, looking at Breanna whose bright eyes glanced between her parents. "I want to be here for my family, but it's hard knowing that my closest friends are going to Afghanistan and I am here, not earning my freedom."
Matt Heeren, a 24-year-old Texas native, has already been to war twice, serving two tours of duty in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division with one of those being during the initial phases of the Iraqi war. He moved to Morton and joined the Guard's Co. A, 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment.
He was supposed to leave for an exercise in June when Breanna had her first operation, the installation of a shunt to drain fluid from the brain. But military duty called.
Matt left for North Carolina with the 178th in August, but the Army allowed him to return home a week ago.
"People say that I have done my time, that I went twice already, but it's a job, it's a lifestyle. You can't just say you went to work last week and therefore, you don't have to go this week," he said.
Ashley, who had hoped to begin nursing school, understands. Her career is on hold until they get a better handle on Breanna's condition. Their other daughter, 2-year-old Brooklin, is being tested for autism.
"But that is the sacrifice. That's what you do as a parent, you be there for your children," she said.
Their pride has kept them from seeking out help from others, but the military community is fairly small and news travels fast.
Friends have organized a Nov. 2 fundraiser at Yesterday's Bar & Grill in Pekin. The couple are touched and moved by the outpouring of support, which has included people offering to baby-sit, donations of diapers and money to help offset some $100,000 in medical bills. An account has been set up at Regions Bank under Breanna's name.
"You see a lot of stupid stuff in the world, but it's nice to see that people are basically good and care," Matt Heeren said.
Tom West is one of those organizing the Nov. 2 fundraiser. A Vietnam veteran, he didn't know the Heerens, but he knew a friend of the family. A phone call led to a meeting with the young family, and he wanted to help.
"I realize that there are millions who need help, but you can't help everybody. We decided to pick one family and help as much as we could," he said, before adding a personal note.
"Besides, I laid my eyes on Brianna, and she smiled at me. That just melted my heart. There's no way I could back out of helping that young girl."
Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 firstname.lastname@example.org.