Friends, strangers offer support to military families

January 18, 1991|By Bruce Reidand Monica Norton | Bruce Reidand Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

As the allied assault on Iraq continues, the extended military family is mobilizing to muster collective strength.

Spouses, children and parents of soldiers are finding solace in support groups that were organized at area Army bases -- Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort George G. Meade in Anne Arundel County -- after the Persian Gulf crisis began last August.

Schools are also trying to be aware of signs of stress among children with a parent, sibling or friend in the Middle East.

"It's basically history in the making," said Col. Robert W. Mortis, deputy commander at the proving ground. "Unfortunately, there's going to be a lot of death associated with this history."

Mortis spoke yesterday to a group of about 75 teachers and administrators from six Harford County schools. He and others from the proving ground were helping the teachers deal with students whose relatives are in the thick of war.

At Edgewood High School, where the talk was held, as many as 70 percent of the 1,000 students have parents who are soldiers or civilians stationed or working at the proving ground, a major Army weapons-testing site and chemical warfare research facility.

Yesterday, students walked the halls at Edgewood High talking of a brother on the front lines or a boyfriend in harm's way. Television newscasts were on in some classrooms. History lessons in real time.

Edgewood High principal Carl Roberts is urging teachers to be open in their discussions of war. One history teacher has been teaching lessons on World War II from the perspective of an infantryman, using diaries of soldiers and other tools.

"He wants them to realize that war is nasty stuff, that war is real," Roberts said.

At both the proving ground and Fort Meade, the military is reaching out to residents of surrounding communities who have loved ones in the Persian Gulf, including people who may not be associated with the Army installations. The installations are offering a wide range of services, from psychiatric counseling to baby-sitting.

"Normal everyday problems become magnified in these circumstances," said Elizabeth Bowman, director of the Army Community Service Center at the proving ground.

Marci Emerson, coordinator of the Family Services Support Office at Fort Meade, said the best thing to come out of the crisis has been the number of people calling to volunteer their services.

"It's been a very pleasant surprise," she said. "I had a psychologist and a psychiatric nurse call and volunteer their services. I've had a number of people -- veterans, retirees -- call up and ask how they can help."

Calls for help have doubled in recent days, Emerson said. People who have not sought help before are now seeking help, she said.

"I believe it's a good sign," Emerson added. "It shows that they're managing stress in a healthy way."

The Anne Arundel County school system also has offered support services for its students, especially those who attend schools on the Fort Meade grounds.

Ken Lawson, assistant superintendent for student support services, said packets urging the establishment of a crisis intervention team were sent to all 120 schools in the system Wednesday.

The packets also included information explaining to teachers and administrators how to detect stress, anxiety and grief among students.

About 5,100 of the Anne Arundel school system's 63,000 students are the children of military personnel.

Some members of the extended military family are seeking strength in military chapels. At one vigil earlier this week at Aberdeen Proving Ground, about 300 soldiers and family members packed a chapel to pray before the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdraw from Kuwait passed.

As war rages, perhaps for some time, the ties that bind the military family will only get stronger. For the children of soldiers, it is especially hard, said Mortis, the proving ground's deputy commander.

"Many of these kids have never experienced this kind of separation from their parents," he said. "Some of them not only don't know when they are coming back, but if they are coming back."

If you need help

* For people around Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, call the post's Army Community Service Center at 278-7474 or 278-7478.

* For people around Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, call the fort's Family Services Support Office at 677-5590.

* For people in the Baltimore metropolitan area, call Operation Orange Ribbon, a grass roots support network, at 442-1114 or 744-2486.

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