FROSTBURG -- Rose Llewellyn knows it's supposed to be Christmas. The tree in her living room is decorated with colorful ornaments. The presents are wrapped and tied with ribbons.
But Christmas is not supposed to be this painful. It's not supposed to be this empty. Christmas is not supposed to be wondering how your husband is spending the day in a lean-to in the Saudi Arabian desert, readying himself for war.
But that is the reality that Mrs. Llewellyn has to live with -- that her husband, Gary, 43, a Frostburg police officer, is more than 6,000 miles away and facing a future as uncertain as he ever has.
"This holiday season has really been hard," she said. "You sit there and watch these Christmas shows and the tears just stream down your face, and then you straighten yourself out, and then maybe you hear the song, 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' and then it blows you away all over again."
Sgt. 1st Class Gary Llewellyn got the call to duty in September, whenthe U.S. Army activated his reserve unit, the 372nd Military Police Company out of Cresaptown, just south of Cumberland in Allegany County.
The company left Western Maryland in the early hours of Oct. 1, and community leaders organized a send-off in downtown Cumberland as the unit drove through on its way to Fort Meade.
It was a memorable event. About 3,000 people turned out waving flags, as high school bands played patriotic selections and family and friends ran out into the street and grabbed some last-minutefarewells.
"That was a heartwarming experience," Mrs. Llewellyn said. "We have a videotape of it."
Frostburg, a college town with about 8,000 residents about nine miles west of Cumberland, has felt the impact of Operation Desert Shield. Two Frostburg State University police officers, Lynn Lewis and Kevin Fearon, are part of the company, as well as two students, Kevin Pellet and Robert Leasure. Before they left, students held a campus rally to support the troops.
In addition to Sergeant Llewellyn, a patrolman, the town's Police Department lost another another officer to active duty, Patrolman Irvin Buskirk.
Police Chief Edward V. Bevan said the loss of two officers in a small department -- 13 full-time workers, including the chief -- had caused some staffing problems. Officers have been rescheduled to take up the slack.
"If it involves our country, you've got to do something," he said. "I have no problem with a man standing up for his country and what he believes."
The 170-member unit stayed at Fort Meade until Nov. 19, when it received overseas orders. That was the last time Mrs. Llewellyn, 46, saw her husband and the last time her 12-year-old daughter, Cathie, saw her father. They had spent the weekend in Fort Meade, expecting a call.
When Sergeant Llewellyn got that call, everything changed for his family -- right before their eyes.
"We saw a husband and father turn into a soldier right in front of us," Mrs. Llewellyn said. "It was awesome, almost scary. There he is, a loving father and husband, and all of a sudden he turned into a totally different person. He grabbed his clipboard and started making checks and giving orders, no nonsense, making sure everything was in place."
Since he left, Mrs. Llewellyn has not heard much from her husband-- two letters.
"He's not the world's greatest letter writer," she said. "But he is a platoon sergeant, and they were saying on television that being a platoon sergeant, you're kept pretty busy."
She has been able to get a feel for what life is like for Sergeant Llewellyn from the families of other members of the company. They keep in constant contact and have a support group that meets monthly.
"I talk to three people who call at least once a week," she said.
Friends and neighbors sometimes find it difficult to talk to Mrs. Llewellyn about her husband. "When people see you, they don't know whether to ask you how he's doing or anything," she said. "When he was down in Fort Meade, people would talk all the
time, but when he was shipped out, they kind of started to sideswipe me, like, 'I'm not going to talk to her -- she might cry.' "
Cathie, a seventh-grader at Beall High School, has had the same experience.
"There was one kid at my school who every time somebody mentions something about Saudi Arabia, he always looks at me funny," she said.
But mostly what the family has received from this town is support. "Frostburg is a friendly town," Mrs. Llewellyn said. "Almost every organization and school is doing something for the troops over there."
Town officials have tried to be sensitive to the families of its two officers. Mayor John Roland and the Town Council agreed to continue the health insurance coverage for both families while the two police officers are on active duty. Otherwise, the families would have had to use military physicians and facilities for health care, and the closest place is almost two hours away.
Mrs. Llewellyn recently quit her job of nine years at a hardware store to stay home. She said she wanted to make sure her daughter Cathie was not coming home to an empty house.
"I've been just putzing around the house, doing things that you put off doing for years and years," she said. "Right now I'm just trying to get ready for Christmas, trying to get in the spirit. But it's not working."
Today is the first Christmas Day for Mrs. Llewellyn's granddaughter Dannielle, the only bright spot of the holiday. Her other daughter, Bobbie Railey, Sergeant Llewellyn's stepdaughter, and son-in-law will bring Dannielle to the house to see all the decorations -- including the yellow ribbons everywhere, a reminder of who will be missing.
"It's kind of like the first Christmas after you find out there is no Santa Claus," Mrs. Railey said.