When the gulf war ground assault begins and casualties mount, Lydia Walker and her volunteers will be among the first to care for the children of the wounded.
Walker directs the Cooperative Disaster Childcare Program, based in New Windsor in western Carroll County, Md. which normally sets up child-care centers in the aftermath of floods and hurricanes.
Under an agreement with the Red Cross, her group is preparing to staff a round-the-clock child-care center at Fort Lewis in Seattle, one of six military hospitals that will initially receive wounded soldiers from the gulf. The families of the wounded are expected to travel to Fort Lewis to meet them and in some cases relocate temporarily near the hospital to support a long-term recovery.
While the adults and older children go for extended visits with the wounded soldier, get counseling to deal with shock at his condition, arrange for an extended stay and make their own emotional adjustments, Walker's group will care for the younger children.
"They're going to experience a lot of shock," Walker said from her office at the New Windsor Service Center, a Church of the Brethren disaster relief and refugee center. The child-care volunteers are trained to help young children channel their anger and grief into constructive activities for coming to terms with the disaster.
Some children may need assurance that the war is too far away for Scud missiles to reach them. Others may find therapy in putting puzzles together "because their life may feel like a puzzle that's been dumped all over the place," Walker said. "The act of putting a puzzle back together gives them some sense of control over their life."
Walker and her secretary are the only paid staff directing a network of more than 900 people all over the country who respond to disasters on short notice. The volunteers are retired people, as well as teachers, clergy, nurses and others who can leave their jobs in response to natural disaster or to serve two-week stints caring for children at Fort Lewis.
Currently, about a dozen volunteers are on alert on the West Coast to respond within 12 hours when the word comes of casualties arriving at Fort Lewis.
Although many are experienced in natural disasters, Walker has arranged additional training for the disaster of war, which brings far more death and injury than floods and hurricanes. Part of that training covers the feelings of the volunteers about war.
The organization is sponsored by several Protestant denominations, but many of the volunteers come from the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic "peace churches" that take an absolute stand against war. Before agreeing to serve at Fort Lewis, the disaster organization sponsors had to conclude that their work would not compromise their stance against war. They decided that their mission was to help children in any disaster.
"We actually transcend the politics of it. It's not up to us to discriminate against a child based on the cause of a disaster," Walker said. "So there was no way to say no."
As part of the training for the assignment to Fort Lewis, she said, volunteers reach a similar rationale and agree that the child-care center is no place to share their feelings about war with "children who may be very angry about a war that has destroyed their mother's legs."
Around her neck, Walker wears a cross affixed to a peace sign, with a yellow ribbon looped through the top. It means, "I'm for peace, but I support our troops," she said.
A veteran of the anti-war movement during Vietnam, Walker said she may eventually want to protest this war, too. But, when she visits the child-care center at Fort Lewis, Walker will leave her cross and peace sign behind.