Persian Gulf war produces baby boomlet Hospitals expect onslaught of births WAR IN THE GULF

June 30, 1991|By Susan Baer

Within weeks of Army Spc. Johnnie Rice's return home from the Persian Gulf, he had persuaded his girlfriend to move from Dallas to be with him at Fort Bragg, N.C., proposed to her, made all the plans for an October wedding -- and even started down the road to diapers, playpens and training wheels.

"We got it a little backward," said Michelle Pope, 22, the bride-to-be who is now seven weeks pregnant and four months away from her wedding. "But we're really looking forward to this baby, Johnnie especially."

"He realized with this war that maybe the next time he wouldn't come back.

"It made him a lot more realistic. It made him want to settle down and have a family."

Ms. Pope is in good company at Fort Bragg, the scene of some of the first gulf war homecomings last spring.

"There are tons of women here who are pregnant," she said. "This is definitely going to be a new baby boom era."

It certainly won't compare to The Baby Boom -- nothing has compared to the population burst that followed World War II, say demographers -- but military posts around the country are preparing for an onslaught of births beginning in December, nine months after the return of the first troops.

Many of these postwar pregnancies have resulted from the flurry of intimate reunions after the homecomings, in many cases with women who stopped using birth control in their husbands' absence.

But a number of pregnancies have stemmed from conscious decisions by military couples to start, or expand, their families -- decisions affected by the experience of war.

"The whole time he was over there, I was so mad that I didn't get pregnant before he left," said Dawn Webb, 20, of Newport News, Va., who got pregnant soon after her Marine Corps husband Mark Webb returned from the gulf on emergency medical leave last October.

"I kept thinking, 'What if something happens to him? I don't have any kids.' "

Ms. Pope adds that her fiance saw the support his fellow soldiers received from spouses and children back home and "wanted that kind of family life, too."

A perilous experience such as war tends to shift one's focus to the "bigger" issues in life, such as family, says Dr. Joseph L. Mancusi, former associate director of psychology for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"There's more of a sense of vulnerability," he says, "a sense of our own mortality that leads us to think, 'We better get on with the bigger things in our life because you never know what could happen.' "

The expected post-Desert Storm boom may even spill over to civilians who felt some of the same fear and vulnerability watching the war from their living rooms, Dr. Mancusi believes.

"We all saw the Scud missiles. We all got this impending sense of our mortality. It was a riveting three or four months. We may find a boom, primarily among the military, but also among others."

Some military bases such as Fort Meade, where the majority of troops didn't return until late spring or are still deployed, say it's too soon to see any trend. But at such facilities as Fort Bragg, where thousands of men and women returned in early March, there's been an "astounding increase" in activity at the gynecological and obstetrics clinic, said Margaret Tippy, spokeswoman for the Womack Army Community Hospital at the post.

"I know the clinic has been bombarded," said Ms. Tippy. Doctors expect a five-fold increase in births between January and March of 1992, she said.

In May, the hospital had to send 19 women to seek care in civilian hospitals because the army facility was full.

For the month of June, the hospital expects to send 100 women to civilian facilities.

Similarly, months after U.S. troops returned from the December 1989 invasion of Panama, "the ob/gyn doctors were really jumping," said Lyn Boyd, wife of a company commander at Fort Bragg and mother of Zachary, whom she calls a "Panama baby."

"The doctors were all saying, 'Oh God, can you imagine the babies after this war!' "

In fact, doctors and staff at military hospitals and nearby civilian hospitals are doing more than imagining the deluge -- they're budgeting for it.

"We realize we're going to be busy for a while," said Clinton Weaver, spokesman for Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. "We'll have to make sure we're fully staffed to handle the workload."

Along with the war-related pregnancies, Dr. Mancusi and other psychologists suggest that any new baby boomlet could be heightened by a general trend in which women opt for child rearing over corporate climbing.

"For women, there's a reversal against career," said Dr. Aphrodite Matsakis, a psychologist at the Silver Spring Veterans Center. "We're seeing a lot of 40-year-old women having babies. These things go in cycles."

But even at this high-procreation point in the cycle, statisticians don't believe that this baby boom will amount to even a blip anywhere except within military circles.

"The gulf war was only five months, not five years like World War II," said Martin O'Connell, director of fertility information for the U.S. Census Bureau. "I don't really expect anything this time that . . . couldn't be explained by typical variation. The only baby boom that ever occurred after a war was after World War II."

But the experience of war, or any close brush with death, can promote a sort of "nest building," said Dr. Matsakis.

"It comes with the territory," agrees Laura Langner, president of a military wives association at Fort Bragg, who notes that every deployment has resulted in a rush of births at the base.

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