When Maria Sutherland told a neighbor in North Pole, Alaska, she was pregnant, the stunned man took a step backwards and asked, “Do I know the father?” Of course, she replied, it was her husband, Stephen.
As natural as that seems, it took some explaining. Maria’s husband, Army Staff Sgt. Stephen Sutherland, 33, had been killed a year and a half before when his armored vehicle rolled over on patrol in western Iraq. But Stephen had left behind sperm that was frozen, and Maria, 38, had become pregnant using in vitro fertilization. “This child,” she says, “was born out of the greatest love you can imagine.”
Love—and modern medical technology. Sutherland is one of a handful of soldiers’ widows to become pregnant with their deceased husband’s child using sperm that was stored before their husbands deployed overseas, never to return. The exact number of births is unknown, since they come to light only if the mother chooses to share the information. But one thing is certain, says William Jaeger, director of the Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia, which has banked sperm for about 500 servicemen since 2002: “Technology has given couples options. You can have a child after your spouse has passed away.”
Military couples generally deposit sperm because they are already pursuing treatment for infertility or because they fear the loss of fertility due to battlefield injuries or exposure to toxic chemicals. The Sutherlands had begun IVF shortly before he left for Iraq in August of 2005. “We always knew we wanted to have children, and my doctors said the only way for me was in vitro,” says Maria. The pair had fallen in love six years earlier when both were stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. Maria, then an Army paralegal, had two sons from a previous marriage, and Stephen quickly grew close to them. Stephen invited them along when he proposed on Mother’s Day 2000, and then adopted the boys—Victor, now 15, and Omar, 18—after their wedding that June.
Their life together ended on Veteran’s Day weekend 2005. Maria, who left the military because of a back injury, was at home when the doorbell rang at 7:30 a.m. “When I saw them, I screamed,” she says. It was a casualty assistance team. But Maria remembered words Stephen had spoken when they began IVF: “He said, ‘If I don’t come back, I want you to be able to go through with this.'”
Even while battling her grief, Maria set out to expand her family. But first, her fertility clinic asked her to wait for a year and to see a counselor to make sure she wasn’t acting on an impulse. Throughout the process, Stephen’s family fully supported her. “My brother told us that even if something happened to him, he would want her to go through with their plans,” says Maria’s sister-in-law Tracy Gilman, 40. “Steve was taken from us, but a part of him will be coming into the world.”
That part has been very lively lately. Stephen John Sutherland II arrived a month early on June 7, weighing 4 lbs. 7 oz. Now at home and double his birth weight, he is a poignant reminder of the dad he’ll never know. “I’ll tell him about his dad and how good a guy he was,” says his older brother Omar.
Kathleen Carroll-Smith, 42, is another Iraq widow who clung to a shred of hope after learning her husband, U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Brian Smith, had been felled by a sniper west of Baghdad on July 2, 2004. “I talked to him June 30. We always ended our conversations with ‘I love you,'” she says. “How many people can say the last thing they said to their husbands was ‘I love you'”
She and Brian, who met at the University of Texas at Austin and married in 2002, wanted to start a family right away but had fertility problems. Because of Kathleen’s age, they decided to pursue IVF even as Brian got ready to deploy. In the back of her mind, Kathleen saw the sperm deposit as insurance for their shared dreams. When Brian did not return, she didn’t hesitate to act. She went through three IVF cycles before becoming pregnant. She gave birth July 14, 2006, to a baby boy named Benton and left her hospital secretary’s job in Austin, Texas, to care for her newborn. Though some of the people Carroll-Smith knows questioned her decision to conceive after her husband’s death, she never had a doubt: “I don’t think there’s any question whether this was right.”
Both Carroll-Smith and Sutherland have received military medical benefits for their babies. A Department of Defense public affairs officer says these births are considered on a case-by-case basis while the Pentagon works on developing a benefits policy for “postmortem conception.” Carroll-Smith has another name for it. “Benton is a miracle,” she says as the little guy in question toddles nearby. “He’s that part of Brian that is still with me.”