Envoy's wife learns, listens, waits, hopes

December 10, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

For Margie Howell, the wait for her husband, the U.S. envoy to Kuwait, may soon be over.

"We talked for about 10 minutes," Howell said of a phone call from her husband Saturday. "He said he hoped he would be back by Christmas. He thinks it will work this time. He's very encouraged."

That call came in the wake of the State Department's announcement Friday that it will close the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait after an estimated 750 American hostages leave there. Kuwait has been occupied by Iraqi troops since it was invaded by that country in early August.

The State Department announcement followed the overwhelming vote of the Iraqi National Assembly to allow all hostages to leave Kuwait and Iraq.

For Margie Howell, who left Kuwait a week before the invasion, it's the second time that she has suffered months of uncertainty while her diplomat husband, W. Nathaniel Howell, has been surrounded by unfriendly troops. Fifteen years ago, he weathered the gunfire of civil war in Beirut and the murder of their friend, U.S. Ambassador Robert Waring.

Saturday, Margie Howell, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., attended a preview of an exhibit of Kuwaiti art at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

The exhibit features 107 Islamic masterworks, which were in Leningrad when the Iraqi invasion occurred. They may be all that remain of the treasures of Kuwait's Museum of Islamic Art.

Howell's training as a psychiatric nurse and her experience as a diplomat's wife have helped keep her from getting too excited about her husband's expected return. For the past 130 days, she has shared her perspective with the distraught families of hostages who call the State Department for any word about their loved ones.

"My advice has been not to believe everything you hear and to realize that things take time to work out," she said. Howell, 51, is tall and soft-spoken, with dark hair and deep blue eyes. "I understand that people are angry when it looks like nothing is happening, but I think it's hard for people who aren't really at the heart of things to really know how much work and effort goes into trying to get these people free."

Her husband has been in the Foreign Service for 25 years. His first diplomatic posting in Egypt brought the family into the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. During the 1970s, he was twice posted to Lebanon.

"Having been through that . . . I learned early on that things aren't important," Howell said. "You take your family, you travel light and you let the other stuff go. . . . You learn what your priorities are. Family -- and that includes my embassy family -- are uppermost."

In 1987, after duty in the United States and in Algeria, Nat Howell was posted to Kuwait, his first as ambassador. It became another hostile setting for him.

Margie Howell admitted she "was cautious about going overseas again. I had my misgivings, but Nat assured me that things were safe in Kuwait. They were. And then this happened."

"Diplomats get killed, too," she said. "We have a big wall at the State Department with the names inscribed on it. And those names have been added a lot more frequently in the past few decades."

Wire services contributed to this story.

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