FRUSTRATION: Families of troops in Mideast suddenly grow more worried

January 10, 1991|By Carl Schoettler and Jay Merwin | Carl Schoettler and Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Bonnie Raab read failure in the glum face of Secretary of State James Baker as he reported on his meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

"I could tell right away," said Raab, whose husband, Ronald Jr., was deployed to Saudi Arabia last month with a military police unit. She watched Baker on television at the nursing home where she works. "I only listened to it for a few minutes and got up and walked away," she said. "It was starting to upset me."

The Raabs are expecting their first child in April. Her mother-in-law, Mary, a Baltimore police dispatcher on her day off, watched television news reports all day and thought about her son: "Will he ever live to see this baby?"

Chester Wickwire, a kind of cherished elder of the Baltimore peace movement, was as somber as the Raabs as he watched President Bush end his segment of the Gulf crisis announcements.

Then he watched Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's quick statement about a national emergency that could activate as many as 1 million reservists.

And this man who had opposed the war in Vietnam from the beginning said he felt a surge of deja vu.

"Oh yes," he said. "It's very difficult for me to see how we can be so stupid. I just can't believe we're going to do this."

Mary Raab believes it. She said the Raab family was made heavy-hearted by Baker's announcement.

"We feel as if there's no hope," she said, her voice quavering. "The hope we had has been destroyed."

She's watched every night this week for her son's appearance in the introduction to a Channel 11 news series on Christmas in Saudi Arabia. Ronald Raab looks sad and homesick on the TV screen.

"You just want to set eyes on him," she said. "It's like if you keep looking at him nothing will ever happen to him."

But, she added "it's just a fantasy."

Chester Wickwire remembers the casualties of the war he resisted. He marched and demonstrated and counseled conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. He was executive director of the Levering Hall YMCA at Johns Hopkins University. He made the Levering Hall YMCA a virtual anti-war sanctuary.

The Vietnam War, he said, produced "tragic losses we could have avoided. Well, now, we're willing to send people to what may be a similar kind of war.

"It really stuns me," he said.

Donna Jones' son, Stephen, is an active-duty Army paratrooper in Saudi Arabia. She stayed home from her job as a mail carrier in Westminster to follow the talks, starting with the "Today Show." She was watching when Baker came on.

"You got his sinking feeling, 'oh, no,' " she said. "I think we were all hoping for some miracle."

Jones said she supported the decision to deploy her son, much as she dreaded the possible consequences. "I think they have done as much as they can do. I think it has come to the point where there has to be a confrontation," she said. "Being a mother, I don't want it to happen."

That may be contradictory thinking, but it's the way some families are able to support but at the same time be afraid for their loved ones in Saudi Arabia.

Donald Bantner of Westminster doesn't want to think that the failure of yesterday's diplomatic meeting means war, but he knows his son is prepared to fight one. "I hate the fact, but I understand the fact," Bantner said.

Other families are still groping for an explantion they can live with. The only reason Ruth Shortt can think of for the deployment of her daughter, Terri Huber, a Maryland National Guard MP, is "the government says they have to go," she said. "I don't think any of them are over there for a good reason."

If her daughter were to be killed in Saudi Arabia, Shortt said she would be hard pressed to say why she died. "I think the sanctions [against Iraq] should be given longer to work," she said, though that didn't seem to be a part of the administration's plan yesterday afternoon.

Wickwire, too, would like time for sanctions to work. He thinks Bush's Mideast policy is mistake-ridden. But he remains tenaciously optimistic that war can be avoided.

"I can't believe the president and the administration will take us to war without doing more.

"I'm still not willing to throw in the towel. I still think there's the possibility of peace. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but it's unbelieveable to me that we would do this, that we would compound the mistakes we've been making."

Wickwire, now 77, is a member of the Middle East Study Association, an organization whose members, he said, range from Kuwaitis to Palestinians to Israelis. He's traveled widely in the Mideast since 1961. He was last there during the summer of 1989.

"There's no question Saddam Hussein is a really bad guy," Wickwire said. "He is."

"I think he's a brutal dictator," he said. "He was a brutal dictator when we embraced him."

Wickwire helped organize the "Teach-in on the Middle East Crisis" Saturday at Morgan Christian Center.

The very word "teach-in" recalls the Vietnam era and so do some of the sponsors: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Maryland Sane/Freeze, American Friends Service Committee, and the Johns Hopkins class on "Non-Violence," which Wickwire teaches, and the Hopkins Office of the Chaplain, which he occupied during the Vietnam years.

And so, too, perhaps does the mounting tension of the families of the men and women who wait in the desert.

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