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Every evening, as the local imam's crescendoing song reached out for the stars and Iraq's intolerable desert days melted into merely uncomfortable desert nights, Joe Lappi knelt in his dilapidated concrete barracks and prayed.

For safety. For peace. And, most often, for his wife and children in Utah.

Heavenly Father, protect my family. Keep them safe. Give them what they need.

Now home, he's more apt to ask for serenity over safety, for patience over peace.

But still and most often, he prays for his family - that it might seem, as it had before he left, closer to heaven.


For Lappi, it was paradise.

A house overlooking the Great Salt Lake in Tooele. A job as a software engineer in Salt Lake City. A wife. Four kids - maybe more, in the future. And a part-time gig as an artillery officer in the Utah National Guard.

"Life was good," he says. "I loved being married. I loved being a dad. That was my purpose in life, and I was happy with that."

For several years, he avoided being called to war. Then, in 2005, it came his turn to fight.

Stationed on a rugged military post near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, where mortars and rockets fell often from the sky and roadside bombs made off-base travel a sometimes-fatal proposition, Lappi's personal paradise kept his hopes alive.

So much so that he didn't believe his wife when she wrote to say their marriage was over.

So much so that he was willing to forgive her affair.

And so much so that he offered to accept, as his own, the child she was carrying.

"It wasn't going to be easy accepting the baby," he says. "But I would have done it. I would have done anything to keep my family together."

Over the final months of his deployment, Lappi struggled to understand what had gone wrong. He offered to attend family counseling when he returned. He prayed.

Please God, change my wife's heart. Help me be the kind of husband she wants.

In the end it didn't matter. Some soldiers get ticker tape; Joe Lappi got divorce papers.

Within weeks of his return in July, Lappi was granted primary custody of four children he'd seen only once, during a Christmas leave, since he deployed.


He didn't have time to be devastated or mourn what he'd lost.

Twelve days out of every 14 - starting at 5 a.m. and continuing until he puts them to bed, he is mother and father to three girls and a boy, all under the age of 8. He comforts and disciplines. He cooks dinner and fixes bikes. He changes diapers and helps with homework.

Not all of his new roles have come naturally.

"Harder than learning how to cook has been learning how to be better at helping kids emotionally," he says. "Their mother did those things before. For me, it is taking time."

And then there are the things that, no matter how much practice, he simply cannot offer.

"I've got big hands," he says, staring at his thick fingers. "I have a hard enough time typing at work - I can't braid their hair."


He's a truck of a man. Six-foot-three. Two hundred and seventy pounds. In a flannel shirt and two days of stubble, he looks every bit like the kind of father he always thought he'd be.

Bring home the bacon. Discipline the kids. Take them camping, hiking, hunting.

Now he drives a purple minivan. Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., he pulls it into a row of similar vehicles parked outside his oldest daughter's dance class.

"Go get Daria," he says one recent Tuesday afternoon, peeking in the rearview mirror at his son, Joey, who has covered himself under one of his father's Army coats in the back seat.

"I don't want to," the boy whines.

Each child tests him in a slightly different way. Lillian and Sophie - one year apart, but virtually identical toddlers - can be sternly defiant. Daria, 6, is often moody. And Joey, the oldest at 8, relishes life at the edge of his father's tolerance.

Lappi reaches back, past his two toddlers, and opens a giant palm.

"Give me the game," he orders Joey, who, under the camouflage jacket, is 24-over-par in a round of video golf.

The boy waivers. "If I go get Daria, can I have it back?" he asks.

"You may," the father says.

Joey rolls off his seat, swings open the door and sprints across the parking lot.

Lappi exhales his frustration and shakes his head. He stares blankly out the driver's side window.

The van is momentarily silent. As if in answer to the quiet, the toddlers, strapped into matching car seats, begin to sing the A-B-C song.

Lappi closes his eyes and listens.

And smiles.


They pray a lot in the Lappi home. At the table before each meal. In the van before each commute into the city, where Lappi drops his youngest daughters off at the day care center where their mother works.

And finally, each evening just before bedtime, the children kneel with their father on the juice- and milk-stained carpet in the family room.

As Joey makes faces and Lillian sticks her tongue in the air, Daria asks God to help her siblings "learn to be reverent."

She prays for her friends and her teachers at school. For her dad and her siblings. And then, as she always does, for two members of her family who are not present.

"God," she pleads, "please bless mommy and her baby."

It breaks his heart. But, he says, it's not his place to tell them what to talk to God about.

When it's Lappi's turn, he asks God to bring his family "closer to heaven" - a phrase he picked up in a church talk sometime back and which he finds himself repeating often these days.

And then, one by one, he herds them into bed - brushing teeth, combing tangles out of hair, reading bedtime stories, giving hugs.

Lots of hugs.

On nights when he's able to get them to sleep by 8 p.m., Lappi gets an hour or two to himself, often to clean dishes and wash laundry.

Sometimes to cry.

And always, before he sleeps, to kneel beside his bed and pray.

For serenity and safety, for patience and peace.

And, most of all, for his family.

Heavenly Father, thank you for my children. Thank you for this opportunity to be closer to them. Thank you for helping me grow as a father.

Thank you for bringing me closer to heaven.