For Maryland National Guardsman Bridget Novak, calling home has meant standing in line for two hours at the pay phone nearest her barracks at Fort Meade. Yesterday, it seemed doubtful that she would have time to call her husband before she and the other members of her Towson-based unit boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia.
"Tell him I love him," the 28-year-old said to a stranger who offered to phone Roy Novak, the guardsman's husband of only four months.
"Just let him know the unit's doing OK and we're ready for this," Ms. Novak said, a wisp of blond hair poking from the rim of her green, camouflage-style cap. "And I hope to come home real soon."
A half-hour before, she had stood stiffly at attention on a parking lot at Fort Meade with her unit, the 290th Military Police Company, waiting with 500 or so other guardsmen and Army reservists for a speech by the garrison commander before their departure to join the Desert Shield Operation. It was a different kind of send-off from the one Ms. Novak and her colleagues received Saturday, Nov. 17, when 1,000 people lined a parade route in Towson festooned with balloons, hand-held U.S. flags and yellow ribbons.
Yesterday, upon orders from the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen, five military companies broke rank.
A horde of men and women rushed toward Col. Thomas R. Mann, their voices barking loudly, their fists twirling in the air.
"Are you ready to roll?" Colonel Mann called out to young faces before him.
"Rock and roll," a guardsman yelled back as the crowd erupted in hoots and hollers.
"You got the best equipment. You got the best training. You got the best leadership in the world, bar none," Colonel Mann told the troops
in a pep talk filled with reminders to write their families often, obey their commanders and watch out for their fellow soldiers.
There were moments of unabashed boosterism -- "You are joining the A-team. . . . Americans win. It's in our blood" -- tempered with more sobering descriptions of the daily routine of a desert soldier.
"A month and half ago, the temperature hit 150 degrees in the day," Colonel Mann said. "Fortunately, it's winter time now, and it's down to 95 degrees."
There was humor -- "Remember now, you got to cook that camel meat when you eat it."
And there was a candid acknowledgment of the potential enemy's most dangerous weapon, an arsenal of chemical weapons. "So what," Colonel Mann shrugged. "We're trained for it."
In closing, however, Colonel Mann noted that the Maryland guardsmen, including the 200th Military Police Company from Salisbury, and the others were leaving as their families were preparing to spend Christmas without them.
The two Maryland National Guard units spent most of the afternoon packing up their personal belongings for the trip to Saudi Arabia, where they may be stationed for as long as six months. Until her unit was called for active duty in mid-November, Ms. Novak was a secretary for an accounting firm in Owings Mills, the mother of a 4-year-old son, who lived with her husband in Westminster.
Once she arrived at Fort Meade, she donned camouflaged green fatigues. They advised her to cut her shoulder-length blond hair.
But Ms. Novak, who finally got through to her husband a few hours before the scheduled departure, twisted a blond strand around her finger and said she preferred to pull her hair back in a pony-tail and bundle it up under her hat for as long as she could.
She and the 104 other members of the 290th have spent 12-hour days training -- doing field exercises, firing their weapons and getting in and out of their gas masks and special chemical-warfare suits.
"Every minute was accounted for," said Sgt. John Frawley of Edgemere as he munched on a slice of Domino's pizza. "If not mentally, physically."
Since their arrival at Fort Meade, members of the 290th guard unit have been permitted home only twice -- once for six hours on Thanksgiving and again, for about 24 hours, last weekend. During Ms. Novak's leave, there was only one thing that she really wanted to do, her husband said last night. Bring her son, David, to see Santa Claus.
The family drove to Owings Mills Mall, and David sat on Santa's lap while photographer snapped a picture. "She took that picture with her," Mr. Novak said.