Fear,confusion take toll near naval base


January 24, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

NORFOLK,VA. — NORFOLK, Va. -- For the students of Holy Trinity School in this military seaport, the war comes down to this poetic plea offered yesterday by seventh-grader Kristen Fleetwood: "The foolish fighting, oh why, oh why?"

Norfolk, home of the world's largest naval base, has fashioned itself as a bastion of pro-military sentiment: A radio ad on television assures viewers that the United States is the "most powerful and best country in the world"; a popular T-shirt brags, "We scared the sand out of Saddam"; and rock radio disc jockey Henry "The Bull" DelToro barks, "We're kickin' butt!"

But in the prayer room yesterday at Holy Trinity, as three more Navy ships set sail from Norfolk, there was little bluster as dozens of elementary school students congregated for what has become a weekly workshop on war.

Principal Dan Owens set up the workshop after war broke out so students could express their concerns. A few days ago, for example, the former Marine gunnery sergeant in Vietnam had to assure skittish first-graders that there would be no terrorist attacks on their school.

Most of the 185 students know someone in the Persian Gulf. Twenty of them have a parent there.

With aching simplicity, one boy said, "I'm afraid my dad might get killed."

A girl held up her hand and said she, too, was afraid. "What are you afraid of?" asked the parish priest, the Rev. Lou Ruoff.

"I'm afraid for all of us," the third-grader answered.

The setting seemed so innocent: school uniforms, green chalkboards wiped clean, paper cutouts of words such as "joy" and "peace" strung about mint-colored cement walls.

But there was nothing innocent about the talk of war among these children who are foot soldiers on this troubled home front.

In a room that became hauntingly quiet, 12-year-old Sarah McCall read the names of 38 Holy Trinity parishioners stationed in the gulf: Jim Dennis, Ivan Wright, Gene Eadie, John Fellowes Jr., Chuck Ravoilos. . . . Some of her schoolmates shared the same last names.

With 40,000 airmen, soldiers and sailors from the Hampton Roads region at war in the Middle East, residents here have had to confront their own enemies: fear, anger, confusion.

Yesterday, Vice President Dan Quayle came to town to assure military families that there "was overwhelming support in the nation for the president's determination to get Saddam out of Kuwait." Most families had hoped for some hint about about how long the war might last; they didn't get it.

In a pep talk at the Norfolk Naval Air Station -- and during earlier appearances yesterday at Mayport Air Station in Florida and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina -- the vice president would only say that U.S. troops would return after the war was won.

Also yesterday, three amphibious ships -- the Guadalcanal, the Austin and the Charleston -- set sail for exercises in the Mediterranean. There has been speculation that the ships, which will carry 1,500 sailors and 2,200 Marines, may end up in Operation Desert Storm.

Since war broke out eight days ago, the Navy Family Services Center in Norfolk has received up to 2,000 calls a day. "Families are so hungry for information," said Cathy Stokoe, deputy director of the center. "It's very important that they sense a show of support from all of us."

Many military spouses expressed outrage at anti-war demonstrators -- the few who have surfaced in Norfolk. At an anti-war protest at Old Dominion University two nights ago, one counter-demonstrator carried a placard that said: "Support Our Troops: Kill A Protester."

At a Norfolk restaurant, one diner told companions that she would gladly trade California -- scene of the largest and loudest anti-war protests -- to Iraq in exchange for Kuwait. "That'll solve the whole problem," she said.

"Everyone here remembers Vietnam and the veterans who were spat upon when they came back," Mrs. Stokoe said. "It's extraordinarily important to them that it doesn't happen to their spouses."

Norfolk is a community that has responded to the needs of its military families: More than 90 mental health professionals have volunteered as counselors; the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce has arranged discounted or complimentary hotel rooms for relatives who come to visit any wounded; and groups from the Little League to City Hall have hosted tributes to the region's absent armed forces.

Last Friday, two days after the shooting started, Jerry Mocherman re-enlisted in the Navy. The enlisted man has been in the service for nine years and saw no reason to let the war block his career path.

"There wasn't really anything to discuss," said 27-year-old Kathy Mocherman about her husband's decision to re-up. "I know things will probably get worse before they get better, and obviously this hits close to home. I can't say it's not confusing, but it's the right thing to do."

At Holy Trinity, there is confusion, too, as students make their own assessment of war: Sad, bad, sick, silly, unfair.

In her struggle to understand, seventh-grader Sarah McCall said she prays every day for peace, asking a simple question of God: "When will the fighting cease?"

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