The family members silently passed from one person to the next the reptilian mask and hood, the bulky charcoal-lined jacket and trousers that are supposed to protect their loved ones in Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi chemical attack.
This somber show-and-tell was meant to offer reassurance to the families gathered at the National Guard armory in Westminster over the weekend for a family support group meeting. Some did feel better about the level of training and protection for the soldiers as they watched two National Guard sergeants demonstrate how to don the suit and seal the mask for safe
For others, such as Pam Stedtler of Owings Mills, just talking about what a son might go through in battle seemed to heighten the parental alarm.
"Without the suit, the mask is no good, right?" Stedtler said.
No, said the sergeants, the mask enables the soldier to breathe and his clothes provide some protection while he dons the suit.
"Is the suit something they carry with them at all times," she wanted to know.
Yes, the sergeants said.
Sgt. Ted Dix, who was fielding many of these questions, also was trying to put the suit, mask and rubber boots on within eight minutes, as soldiers are trained to do. But, as the questions flew faster, his demonstration went slower.
"I probably just died," he said. "I didn't put it on in eight minutes." His anxious audience laughed, breaking the tension.
Stedtler and about 25 other people who have family members serving in the Persian Gulf meet Saturday afternoons to share what they have heard through letters and phone calls from Saudi Arabia and to hear a guest speaker. Last weekend, the guests were the sergeants with the chemical suit and Steven Mednick, a Westminster psychotherapist who has offered his counseling services free of charge.
Stedtler, whose son is a private in an Army engineer unit near the front, took Mednick up on the offer right away.
"I find I can't sleep the night through," she said. "I run out to the living room and put CNN on."
Anne Day of Westminster said she can't take a hot shower or drink a cold glass of water without thinking that her son, a corporal with a Marine artillery unit, has little access to such amenities at the front. "Why can't I give my son this shower," she said. "Why do I feel guilty?"
And Nancy Spaugh of Westminster said she was having trouble knowing what to write to her son, an anti-tank gunner with the Army 82nd Airborne Division. Behind the upbeat daily news, she tries to include in her letters this feeling, which is difficult to express: "letting him know that I understand he could die."
The room filled with murmurs of understanding.