Parents hesitate about burdening soldiers in gulf with bad news WAR IN THE GULF

MARYLANDERS IN THE GULF

January 28, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

Ever since the car accident, Eunice Clarke had been turning it over in her mind -- should she write and tell her sons serving in Saudi Arabia with Operation Desert Storm? Her mother, the boys' grandmother, broke her hip. Should she tell them the worrisome news?

Friday evening, Ms. Clarke got her answer. Her 21-year-old son Andrew, a sergeant in the Army, called from the desert. He had learned of the accident from another family member. He told his mother, "Don't keep anything away from us. Let us know."

Baba Whisler wouldn't necessarily agree. Mrs. Whisler says she prefers to keep the letters to her 20-year-old son, Pfc. Matt Whisler, upbeat with details like the boys who date his 17-year-old sister.

"I'm afraid if he gets upset that he won't concentrate," said Mrs. Whisler, of Baltimore. "It's very important to me to keep his spirits very high."

Since U.S. soldiers first arrived in Saudi Arabia five months ago, the No. 1 item on everyone's most wanted list has been MAIL. It is perhaps the single item most associated with the morale of U.S. troops.

And now, with sons and daughters in the midst of war, parents are even more concerned about how news from home will affect the well-being of their children.

Yesterday, parents of soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf talked about those concerns during a support group meeting in Baltimore.

It was just one of several items discussed as parents from Columbia and Frederick, Millersville and West Friendship got together at the home of Ed and Barbara Brody in Baltimore to talk about the stress of having a loved one caught in the cross-fire of the gulf war.

One in a series of meetings held by the group since it formed nine weeks ago, yesterday's session focused on coping and was led by Dr. Jesse Harris, a professor of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and retired Army colonel. Dr. Harris was joined by six colleagues from the school, who led small group discussions on the issue.

In the Brodys' dining room, 20 parents sat around a long mahogany table. They offered up the ways they cope with stress: "talking it out," "keeping a diary," "having a good cry."

"I'm one that needs to talk," said one mother, "but people are afraid to approach me. They don't know what to say."

They shared their thoughts about watching the incessant flow of news from the gulf.

"I felt I was becoming a hostage to the television," said another mother. "I want to be informed but I don't want to be glued to the TV. It was too stressful for me."

"We're all looking for our sons' faces," added another parent.

Then, group leader Pat Powers asked the parents about the letters they write their sons and daughters. Has it been easy or hard to write the letters?

Nearly all of the parents were concerned about their children's emotional well-being; they didn't want to distract their children from concentrating on their safety.

While "you don't want to overload them," Dr. Harris, the social work professor, explained later, "you can't totally protect them." His rule of thumb is to tell a child "news they have a right to know," and he includes in that an illness affecting a relative. But if the car breaks down, there is no point of telling a soldier about that.

"They can't do anything about it," he said.

From the time her son was little, Dorris Creager said, she has "always told him the truth." The Columbia mother said she wasn't going to start doing otherwise now.

"I don't keep anything back," she said. "If he has feelings, I want him to be able to talk to me about them."

So when her 28-year-old son, Army Staff Sgt. Norman T. Carter, wrote and asked her opinion of his girlfriend and marriage, Mrs. Creager gave him 12 pages of it.

"I gave him an honest assessment, based on Biblical principles, Old and New Testament," said Mrs. Creager, a smile tugging at her lips.

Her son's reply? Sergeant Carter told his mom he'd better wait until he got home to continue that discussion.

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