When Gloria Robinson walked into the small, second-floor office at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore yesterday, she was looking for the son she hadn't seen in seven years. She feared he was caught in the cross fire of a desert war thousands of miles away.
She hoped Trish Putman could find him.
"We've had no contact at all, and it's kind of hard now since this started," Mrs. Robinson told Mrs. Putman, who is the Maryland National Guard's family assistance coordinator. "Every time I look at the television set . . . I try to see him, when the cameras go around to the different guys over there."
In peace, Trish Putman gets about one or two calls a month from families looking for lost relatives. Yesterday morning, as the allied strikes in Iraq continued, Mrs. Putman handled at least triple the number of requests to track down a son or brother.
In Mrs. Robinson's case, Mrs. Putman was unable to help: It is nearly impossible to locate a soldier in the military computer system without a Social Security number, and Mrs. Robinson didn't know her son's.
But requests for help in finding a soldier were just a small fraction of the calls that lighted up the five telephone lines in Mrs. Putman's one-room office from the time she arrived for work at 7:30 a.m. yesterday, the first full day of the Persian Gulf war.
Mrs. Putman, Sgt. Larry Butts of the National Guard's Central Command Office, and Cathy Monroe, a psychologist who volunteers in the family assistance office, fielded dozens of calls about Operation Desert Storm, from requests about the welfare of the estimated 500 Maryland National Guardsmen there to offers of help from area therapists willing to donate their services to distressed families.
Do you think my husband will be able to call home now? It depends on where he is in Saudi Arabia and the communication lines.
Will the mail stop? No.
Can a mother's only son return home now that war had been declared? The Sole Surviving Son Act only applies if there is a draft.
If there are casualties, how will we be notified? If a serviceman is killed in the line of duty, the Army will send a representative to the family's home.
An Eastern Shore woman was calling on behalf of her financially strapped daughter-in-law. "Is she going to be calm enough for me to talk to her?" Mrs. Putman asked.
The young woman, whose Guardsman husband is in Saudi Arabia, was being forced to move from her parents' apartment because she wasn't on the lease. Her husband's paychecks appeared to be short and she was having trouble paying her car loan.
"What I need to do is see if we can get you any additional emergency assistance for the security deposit" on a new apartment, Mrs. Putman said.
Mrs. Putman also told the woman that the interest on her car loan could be reduced to 6 percent under federal law.
"She is one of my lost spouses," Mrs. Putman said, explaining that her office had never received a correct address for the woman. "Now we found her, now we're going to fix her."
Mrs. Putman hung up her phone and handed Sergeant Butts three slips of yellow paper, follow-up calls that needed to be made on cases in which two spouses were having trouble with car loan companies and a third was trying to get the interest on a privately held mortgage reduced to the 6 percent limit for active duty service members.
Another phone line rang. An anxious wife wanted verification of a television report that the Towson-based 290th Military Police Company had moved to the Kuwaiti border. "They are south of the Kuwaiti border and they are not in the area being attacked," she said reassuringly. "Look at your map. Look at your map. At the moment, everything is fine with our Maryland units."
In fact, Mrs. Putman said reassuringly, several Maryland Guardsmen called home yesterday. The commander of the battalion that includes the Maryland units, Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen, also called home, telling his wife, Judy, "Let everyone know everyone's fine."
In a quiet moment, Mrs. Putman decided it was her turn to ask a question. "Did you bring in any change of clothes, Larry?" she asked her colleague.
Mrs. Putman came prepared for the long night ahead. She did bring a change of clothes and wore sensible, black flats instead of her high heels. She cooked several meals at home the night before so that she could bring a hearty lunch like yesterday's meatloaf and peas.
"The extent of what I might do is leave here to let my puppy dog out," said Mrs. Putman, who has worked as the Guard's family assistance coordinator full time since 1985.