FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- On this cold, January night, Johnna Flores gathers her two children and they blow kisses to the moon.
"There, Daddy," whispers 6-year-old Ricardo Jr., his face turned heavenward.
Seconds later, the brown-eyed boy grabs his cheek. "I just got one of Dad's kisses," he says. "Right here."
Ever since Army Staff Sgt. Ricardo Flores left for the Persian Gulf four months ago, his family has ended each evening on the doorstep of their modest brick home at Fort Bragg.
Mrs. Flores' husband isn't a hot pilot or an infantry scout. He is a cook for the 82nd Airborne division and when that infantry unit goes into Kuwait, Sgt. Flores goes with it.
Meanwhile, he writes feelingly from faraway of his thoughts, signing each letter, "Keep looking to the moon." And, here at home, Mrs. Flores talks about how she has tried to position this new war into her family's every day.
The Army has been their life for nearly 11 years, and there have been long separations before, but never has the waiting been so difficult.
Like everyone else at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne, Mrs. Flores, young Ricardo and 10-year-old Johnna wait for the land war to begin.
"Every morning, I wake up, I look at the TV and it stares back. Should I turn it on or shouldn't I turn it on? Will this be the day the ground troops go in? Will it be total devastation?" wonders Mrs. Flores, 28. "It wasn't the war we expected. The waiting, the waiting."
Mrs. Flores says her husband counseled her not to count the days, or the weeks, when he left Fort Bragg on Sept. 27. It was the couple's 10th wedding anniversary.
"I guess I'd rather count down than count up," she says. "The day the shooting started, I began counting down."
Young Ricardo shoots through the living room like a rocket. "My dad's Army! He's a cook!," the boy yells. "Army, cook! Army, cook!"
Later, in his mother's arms, he recites the prayer he has come to say at mealtimes: "Please watch over my dad and all the soldiers in Saudi Arabia and bring them home soon. I hope it doesn't take a long time for them to have a war."
He adds: "I'm proud of my dad. I'll be prouder when he's home. I miss him."
Mrs. Flores does not have a friend here whose husband isn't in the Persian Gulf. When the women get together, the talk turns quickly to war.
They read each other their letters, the coveted letters from absent husbands. Like armchair generals, Mrs. Flores and her friends assemble pieces of information offered by their husbands and try to figure out a strategy, a location, a plot -- anything to bring them closer to their men a half a world away.
"Every conversation starts out:'Have you heard from your husband? When was the last time? What did he say?,' " says Mrs. Flores, who has tied her husband's letters in a red ribbon that is inscribed: "P.S. I Love You."
It is inevitable that talk of war includes the shadow of death. It is something Mrs. Flores discusses, though not easily.
"We wives have talked a bit about it. It's something we try not to personalize. When I picture death, I don't picture my husband," she says. "But we all know that at least a few of our husbands won't make it back. I don't think our darkest day has yet arrived. That will come the day the ground troops go in. That is all I can say."
* Sgt. Flores, 30, last called home Jan. 16. The shooting started hours later; that night the phones at his camp were disconnected.
In a letter dated Jan. 18, Sgt. Flores -- whose father was a cook in the U.S. Navy -- wrote:
"I'm praying that I'm home in your loving arms soon. It's hard to really believe that we're at war right now . . . It doesn't seem like we're in any immediate danger. Don't worry, babe, too much. I'm taking care of myself . . . Let's just hope we kick ass on Saddam good and fast."
He also wrote that he has three constant companions: a gas mask, a protective suit to guard against chemical attack and a weapon.
* Johnna and Ricardo Flores met at Gunderson High School in San Jose, Calif. She was a sophomore and he was a senior.
It was not love at first sight.
zTC Over a period of time, they became friends, though they dated others. "Then," Mrs. Flores says. "We realized that being friends was what a relationship is all about."
Friends they have stayed, but there has always been a third element in their relationship: the Army.
"Rick, the Army, me -- it's all tied together," Mrs. Flores says. "In some ways, I think it's why we have a strong marriage. We knew he could be taken away at any time. Each day he was here we didn't take for granted. I've always been very aware of what the Army meant."
An embroidered hanging in their living room says: "Home is where the Army sends you."
While the couple has spent most of the last 10 years at Fort Bragg, which has deployed 30,000 troops to the gulf, Sgt. Flores has been dispatched from time to time on unaccompanied duty. The longest: six months in Egypt and a year in Korea.