McConnell helps airman cope with loss of infant son

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Emmitt Alan Thornbury lived for an hour and 16 minutes.

His father, Christopher Thornbury, an airman at McConnell Air Force Base, knew his time with Emmitt would be short, The Wichita Eagle ( reports.

Emmitt was born with Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition that is nearly always fatal.

"They weren't talking about years or even months, not even days," Thornbury said. "They were talking about minutes and hours."

In what he describes as the darkest time of his life, Thornbury, 25, said his co-workers and leaders at McConnell helped him cope with the loss of his infant son.

The Thornburys found out Emmitt would have a genetic defect at his mother's five-month ultrasound appointment.

Emmitt had an abnormally small chin, Thornbury said.

"I thought, 'OK, we're just going to have a goofy-looking kid,' " he said. "Turns out it was because of other things."

Trisomy 18 is the result of an extra chromosome 18, and it can result in heart defects, kidney problems and other internal problems.

It occurs in one out of every 5,000 live births, and many more do not survive to birth, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Thornbury's supervisors at McConnell ensured he could make every doctor's appointment and have plenty of time to spend with his wife, he said.

He had been at McConnell only since November 2014.

"They said, 'We're going to do everything we can for you,' " he said. "They gave us emergency leave to be as prepared as we could for his birth."

Emmitt Thornbury was born at 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 18 at Kansas City's Children's Mercy Hospital.

There was little celebration.

"Every second that I had with him, I knew it was going to be my first and last moments with him," Thornbury said. "I guess his passing just couldn't get off my mind."

The Thornburys had the option to put Emmitt on oxygen but decided against it because doing so could injure Emmitt internally and prolong his suffering, Thornbury said.

Everyone in the Thornbury family - including 2-year-old Kiersten, who kissed Emmitt - held the baby before he died.

Four days later, Christopher Thornbury was at Emmitt's funeral in his hometown of Lebanon, Missouri.

His brother came up to him and said, "Your friends are here."

Four McConnell people had driven the 303 miles to attend the funeral - a chaplain, Thornbury's "fearless leader" Ashley Wright and co-workers Tara Fadenrecht and Victor Caputo.

"Caputo's probably my best friend here, and I've known (Fadenrecht) since tech school," Thornbury said. "To see those two there ... I was an emotional wreck, to say the least.

"Even if they were only there for 30 minutes through the funeral, it really shows that they cared, which meant a lot."

Emmitt's face stares back at Thornbury every time he glances at his Christmas tree at his home on base.

The family has made ornaments adorned with Emmitt's picture to hang on their tree.

The memory is with Thornbury every time he touches the tiny blankets once wrapped around Emmitt at the hospital.

"He is a part of our family still," Thornbury said. "Whenever we put those (ornaments) up, it ... hurts."

Thornbury has coped with his loss by staying busy at work in the public affairs office at McConnell and by talking to his supervisors and his wife at length.

He said he's lucky to "have met such good people in the Air Force."

"I received calls, texts and messages from many people sending condolences and asking if there was anything they could do," he wrote in a commentary on McConnell's website. "A vast majority of those people I had just met within the year and a half of my enlistment, not in my 24 years before."

McConnell Air Force Base has resources available whenever tragedies happen to its airmen.

There are funds available to families for travel to and from home in the event an immediate family member dies or is terminally ill, as well as funds for funeral services.

There are also interest-free loans for airmen with financial issues and who need emergency car repairs or rent.

Its chapel offers grief counseling and marriage counseling as well as other services.

Thornbury's supervisor offered to help him relocate to a base closer to home in Missouri, but he turned down the offer.

"I don't know what would have happened without the resources provided to my family by the Air Force and to my family back at McConnell, but I do know that because they picked me up, I can put my best foot forward," Thornbury wrote.


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Wichita Eagle.

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