GAITHERSBURG -- He tries not to dwell on it. But sometimes Ken McDowell finds himself thinking the unthinkable -- where would he live, what would he do, how would he manage if his wife, Navy nurse Lt. Denise McDowell, didn't come back from the Persian Gulf?
And while every bomb blast that he heard Wednesday night, sitting on the edge of his bed transfixed by the television and the chilling sounds of war, made him a little more fearful, it also made him a little relieved.
"I'm viewing this as the beginning of the end of this whole nightmare," says Mr. McDowell, a 41-year-old banker whose wife left him and their then-year-old daughter last August to board the USNS Comfort hospital ship.
"I see it as an avenue for bringing my wife home sooner."
She's been gone exactly 150 days, he will tell you -- time enough for him to lose 22 pounds, and for 17-month-old Caitlin to gain one shoe size, two clothing sizes, 4 pounds, 2 inches, teeth, hair, a vocabulary and a confident stride.
"I can't wait for her mother to see her," says Mr. McDowell of the daughter with whom he's become especially close.
He last spoke with his 31-year-old wife by phone on Jan. 6, just before the hospital ship pulled out of Dubai to pick up additional staff and then head for the gulf. The conversation was a little strained since both knew it would probably be the last time they would speak for a long while.
Now, he says, he'll rely on the media for news -- there's a TV set on each floor of his home, so he's never out of listening range -- and wait for letters, as he and his daughter continue with the routine they've settled into since his wife left: Up at 5 a.m., the baby sitter's by 7:30, work at 8, out of the office by 4:30 p.m., the baby sitter's by 5:30, home by 5:45.
His feelings about the war, he says, are ambivalent. "Politically, I think it's the right thing to do," he says. "I've supported this whole thing from the beginning."
But on the other hand, says Mr. McDowell, who did a short, non-combat stint in Vietnam, "Emotionally, I want my wife not exposed to the horrors that war can offer -- the busted and broken and blown-up bodies that she may have to see. There are people walking around today left over from World War II or Vietnam, who were non-combatants, who are carrying around heavy emotional loads that are still adversely affecting them.
"I know that the woman who left won't be the same woman who comes back. How it affects her I'm sure not even she knows. But I suspect the worse she's exposed to and the longer she's exposed to it, the more different she's going to be."
He worries, too, that the longer Lieutenant McDowell is away, the less their daughter will remember her, even though she has sent videos, photos, a picture book called "Caitlin and Mommy," and tapes of her voice to the child.
"In some ways, Mommy's a game," says Mr. McDowell. "Mommy's less an entity than an image on a video or a screen. Then again, sometimes [Caitlin] surprises me. Lately, she's been calling out for Mommy. And you can almost see her searching the back of her mind for that memory of her.
"Hopefully, this thing will end soon," he adds. "And we can be a family again."
But for now, "Mommy" remains a picture, a smiling woman in a beige military uniform on a ship, a vast blue body of water in the background.
If such thoughts worry him, they absolutely torment his wife, who broke into tears on the phone when told that her daughter had moved from a crib to a bed. The only thing that keeps her spirits up, says Mr. McDowell, is her belief that "all of this is for a reason."
In a letter to friends and family, Lieutenant McDowell wrote:
"Leaving Ken and Caitlin was probably the most difficult task that I have ever faced. The agony, grief and feelings of having abandoned my baby cannot be described . . . [But if] I were not here helping to protect our freedom . . . perhaps Caitlin and all of the little children would not have such joyous childhood memories. Each and every day I remind myself that I am here to make the world a better place for them."
Mr. McDowell says his wife was apprehensive about the fighting -- although "not scared for herself" -- especially after visiting a Marine compound in Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia last month and seeing the living conditions and the fleet hospital.
"Her whole perspective changed after that. That's when she got scared. When you're doing mass casualty drills, you try to make it as real as possible, but it's still a drill. This sobered her up."
For his part, he has lived with thoughts of worst-case scenarios from the day she left.
"What if she doesn't come back? There's a possibility, no matter how slight . . . he says.