With their loved ones stationed in a far-off desert and the threat of war a constant, nagging fear, many military families at Fort George G. Meade faced more anxiety than merriment when the holidays began.
Especially for young wives -- many of them pregnant and with small children -- this first separation from their husbands has made for a stressful Christmas, said Marie S. Locke, chief of the family support division at Fort Meade.
Money is tight for these young families. Many privates make about $700 a month, plus allowances. They're having a hard enough time buying food, diapers and medicine, much less gifts to put under the Christmas tree, Locke said.
But Christmas promises to be merry after all at Fort Meade. Not only have military families and personnel banded together to help those who need it most, but civilian organizations have made an impressive outpouring of charity.
"We're getting more civilian agencies helping us this year because of (Operation) Desert Shield," Locke said. "People are very much aware of those whose spouses are away."
Here are some of the ways the Army and civilians have tried to help: * On Dec. 4, Meade High School sponsored "Support the Sandpile Day," where students gathered presents and sent them to soldiers in Saudi Arabia.
* On Dec. 8, the Army threw a Christmas party at Meade Heights Elementary, complete with Santa Claus and entertainment. About 400 people attended, Locke said, most of them from the Meade Heights area, a section of Army housing where many young families of lower-ranking soldiers live.
* Last week, students at the Chesapeake Academy in Arnold wrapped presents collected by the Severna Park Chamber of Commerce for a Dec. 15 party in the Youth Services Building at Fort Meade. About 275 children of deployed and non-deployed military personnel were expected to attend.
* At Arundel High School, students offered free baby-sitting Dec. 8 and 9 so Desert Shield parents could go Christmas shopping without their children.
* Jones Intercable Inc. of Gambrills made videotapes of families, and the Army paid to send them to the soldiers overseas.
* A camera club at Fort Meade has been making sure fathers in Saudi Arabia get snapshots of their new babies.
The focal point of assistance for Desert Shield families is an outreach center, set up on Reece Road in August after the invasion of Kuwait. Here, military spouses -- most of them wives of enlisted men -- can come every day to collect food, health aids and other goods provided through Army Community Services.
They also can receive support from wives who have been through all this before.
About 15 "older" military wives have been volunteering to help the younger women, said Mary Connick, whose husband, a Vietnam veteran, has been in the Army for 20 years.
Most of these young women are 18 to 23 years old, with children under 7.
About 100 of them are expecting babies right now, Connick said.
"The young girls -- it's hard for them," she said. "They've never been through an experience like this . . . We've kind of stepped in and become their partners.
"Bless their hearts, they just are doing real good. They are showing their stuff. They had a lot of tears at first; now a lot of them are volunteering to help other women. They have come through this like a bunch of troopers."
When the first troops from Fort Meade were deployed in August, Locke said, the commander of the 519th Military Police Battalion told Army Community Service Workers he was especially concerned that their families would be taken care of through the holidays.
Army Community Services has tried to pay special attention to the lower-ranking families during the holiday season, Locke said.
The "Adopt an Angel" program, planned by the Community Action Council, targets needy children who live in the post's 14 housing areas, she said.
The children's first names have been hung on a 7-foot Christmas tree at the Post Exchange. Would-be Santas have pulled a name off the tree and bought a present for that child.
About 240 adopted angels are expected to receive gifts, Locke said.
Nearly 1,500 regular army and reserve troops have moved through Fort Meade on their way to the Middle East since last August's invasion.
"It's difficult to see some of these very young families separated," said Locke, who has worked on Fort Meade since 1962. "But this is how it has always been in this country."
CAPTION: PHOTO PHOTO 1 THE ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY SUN-Eileen Ryan