Couple caring for co-worker’s child while mom serves in Afghanistan

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 26, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Christmas has special meaning this year for single mom and soldier Lt. Sonjagela Johnson. The bittersweet December journey from Afghanistan to Mississippi to attend the funeral in Brandon of a grandmother who had reared her coincided with her only child’s first birthday.

Preparing to return to her duty in a dangerous and war-torn country on the day after Christmas, she takes with her a precious gift &045; confidence that her beautiful small daughter, Hannah, will be loved and nurtured by surrogate parents and siblings.

&uot;Hannah was only six weeks old the first time I was called. That was in January,&uot; said Johnson, a member of the U.S. Army Reserves working with a busy transportation unit at Bagram Air Force Base. &uot;The commander said I had a four-month period after her birth for a mother-baby bonding period.&uot;

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That reprieve continued until October, when she was called again. She traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, where she she learned she would go to Afghanistan. &uot;It was a shock, but I was prepared,&uot; she said.

With no family in Natchez to care for her daughter, she looked to friends. She knew that Aaron and Linda Patten would be the perfect ones to keep Hannah. Would they agree?

&uot;It was a God-given thing to do,&uot; said Linda Patten, a third-grade teacher at Morgantown School who described the joy Hannah has brought to the household, not only for her husband and her but for their two sons, Jairus, 5, and Aronte, 13. &uot;Aronte definitely has taken on the big brother role, which basically means he spoils her.&uot;

The brief visit home in December confirmed all of Johnson’s hopes, and she can return to duty &045; which now will continue into July &045; knowing that her child is fine. &uot;I miss her. I look at her picture every day, but I don’t worry about her,&uot; she said. &uot;I know she’s in good hands.&uot;

Aaron Patten, assistant director of engineering at Natchez Regional Medical Center, said Hannah fits perfectly into their family. &uot;We always said we wanted a little girl, and we had one in 2000 and lost her. Now God is showing us what it is like to have a girl in the house.&uot;

Taking such a small child into their home was a huge responsibility, the Pattens agreed. &uot;It was a life-changing experience,&uot; Linda Patten said. &uot;Ours was already a joyful home, but she has brought more joy and excitement to it.&uot;

Johnson and the Pattens attend New Hope Baptist Church together. Speaking about the shared daughter, they frequently referred to the blessings the arrangement had brought to all of them.

With a smile that lights up her face, little Hannah went easily and happily from one adult to another. In addition to the Patten family, she has the entire church congregation following her, Linda Patten said. &uot;With all our extended family and the church family, there are always people asking to help us out.&uot;

When Johnson arrives back in the bleak country to which she has been assigned as an Army officer, she will take all the memories, happy and sad, of a two-week Christmas

visit to Natchez.

&uot;What I have missed the most about Hannah is the crazy smile she has when she wakes up in the morning,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;She was born with a smile on her face.&uot;

In July, the soldier will return home, resume her work as a medical records clerk in a private Natchez clinic and take Hannah home.

&uot;But there will have to be lots of visits,&uot; Linda Patten said. &uot;I know the boys will want to see her every day.&uot;

That should be easy to accomplish, Johnson said. &uot;These are pretty special friends.&uot;