Maryland welcome due for pilot home from gulf WAR IN THE GULF

March 08, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Michael James is a reporter for the Howard County Sun, a suburban edition of The Baltimore Sun.

Her colonial-style home is at the end of a typical suburban cul-de-sac, where her 1982 Volvo sits parked by a tree with a yellow ribbon.

But Kate Farber's Elkridge home, where she and her family moved about a year ago to escape Denver's big-city life, has been the farthest thing from her mind while she waited for word on whether her brother, a Navy pilot downed in the war with Iraq, was alive.

"The only thing that mattered was to see my brother come back, to know that he hadn't just been lying out in the desert for the past four weeks," said Mrs. Farber, 35. "For those weeks, nothing mattered -- not even if the house burned down."

Her brother, Navy Lt. Robert Wetzel, 30, will arrive Sunday at Andrews Air Force Base to a welcome of 25 familiar faces, including his parents, his eight brothers and sisters, and his fiancee.

Lieutenant Wetzel's A-6 Intruder plane was shot down on the first day of the gulf war.

He and his bombardier, Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, were taken prisoner.

Unlike Lieutenant Zaun, who captured national attention by being one of the first POWs to be seen on Iraqi television, Lieutenant Wetzel's whereabouts remained unknown. He was listed only as "missing in action," a term that made Mrs. Farber and even more unsure and uncertain.

Mrs. Farber and the rest of the Wetzel family learned he was alive only when they saw him Sunday on a CNN broadcast. He had suffered two broken arms and a broken collarbone.

In a telephone conversation Monday, he said he was "feeling just great," Mrs. Farber said.

During the weeks of uncertainty, neither Mrs. Farber nor her husband could keep their minds on work, though she continued running her home-based day-care center, and her husband, Louis, a contractor, went on working.

All they were thinking was, "I wonder what happened to Bob?" Mrs. Farber said.

"The only thing we knew was that his plane didn't return. We kept hearing so much about Zaun and how he was probably being tortured," Mrs. Farber said. "The question we kept asking was, 'What happened to the pilot who was flying him?' "

Lieutenant Wetzel, as it turned out, was being well cared for in a Baghdad hospital. In Monday's brief telephone conversation, he told her the Iraqi doctors gave him excellent medical attention.

Starting today, many of Lieutenant Wetzel's relatives will be assembling at Mrs. Farber's Elkridge home as they prepare to greet him. They include his eight brothers and sisters from as far away as Key West, Fla., and Aspen, Colo.

During the weeks of uncertainty, Mrs. Farber wrote a letter to President Bush, urging him to make release of POWs a condition of the war's end.

hTC Preparing to write the letter, she contacted several POW organizations and Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who told her that in past wars, some nations have not allowed Americans to come home.

"It makes me want to stay involved and to try and help families that still have to live with the idea that their son or daughter is an MIA," Mrs. Farber said. "We could have easily been one of those families that never saw their son again, with no explanation of what happened to him."

The Wetzel family grew up in Metuchen, N.J., and has spread out over the country in recent years. But Robert Wetzel's predicament made them realize that their relationships still mean very much to them, said the lieutenant's father, William, who will arrive tomorrow.

"The news that he's coming home is the most terrific news we've ever had in our family," he said from a daughter's home in Neptune City, N.J.

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