GAITHERSBURG -- Lt. Cmdr. Melanie D. Frank used to sweat the details.
She would work late and worry through the weekend -- compulsively sifting and sorting through each problem on her shift as assistant department head of obstetrics and gynecology at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
But that was before Operation Desert Storm.
Before she came face-to-face with her own mortality.
"On the ship I felt the fear of never coming home again, the fear of never seeing my children again, the fear of dying," said Mrs. Frank, 36, a Navy nurse who shipped out in August on the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital stationed in the Persian Gulf. "I always said my kids were the most important thing in my life, but I never lived it.
"That's the biggest thing I learned: taking control of the thingthat are most important to me -- making time for myself, my husband and my children."
Since April 15, the day Mrs. Frank returned to her home here, much of her life has been directed to taking that control. She has changed her schedule. She no longer puts work before family commitments. She has reconsidered everything from family dinners to national holidays.
For example, Mrs. Frank insists the family dine together every night. But she doesn't worry about how they will spend the Fourth of July.
"I am never leaving American soil again," said Mrs. Frank, still tanned and muscular from her months at sea. "I am much more emotional about the flag than I ever was, and I get teary every time I say the Pledge of Allegiance. But I am not focusing on the Fourth, I'm focusing on every day of my life. Every day is the Fourth to me."
A voluble nurse with an open manner, Mrs. Frank is one-half of a two-career military family. Her husband, Joel, a 41-year old Navy commander who oversees the Naval Reserve medical program, works at the Pentagon. Both realized that Melanie likely would be called up if a crisis occurred. But they were still surprised when she got her orders.
Initially, life on the USNS Comfort was hard. For the first few weeks crew members had no contact with home and they worked long hours setting up hospital quarters. But old patterns soon yielded to new realities: Mrs. Frank found herself part of a medical team dependent on each other for physical safety and emotional succor.
"The thing which is hardest about coming home, which is even harder than leaving, is when you come home you are all alone," said Mrs. Frank, who belonged to an Intensive Care Unit on the Comfort. "When we went to the ship we had each other to depend on. But here you are all alone. As much as Joel wants to understand, there's a part of me he will never fully understand."
Mrs. Frank also doubts her husband, or anyone else, can understand the bittersweet sting of homecoming. She ached to hold Evan, 8, and Lauren, 5. But when she finally returned to the family's nautically decorated town home, the children treated her like an alien presence.
"I thought it would be hard to get back to the marriage concept -- sharing everything with another adult after independent living for eight months," she said. "But that was easy.
"Being a mom has been the most difficult part. At first I felt like a stepmother. I felt, 'I am in love with Joel and these are his kids and his house.' Lauren had to show me her new clothes and her new things. But what really tore me apart was whenEvan told me, after I started coming home an hour earlier than Joel, I couldn't help him with his homework. His daddy did that."
Commander Frank, who said his good humor was strained by full-time parenting, was pained to see the children try to play mom and dad off each other.
"The toughest part was worrying how Melanie felt," said Mr. Frank. "When she was gone the hardest time was putting the kids to bed. I thought it would be easier when she got back, but it wasn't."
It wasn't easy in other ways, either.
With two young children and their big black poodle Schooner, the Frank household is frenetic even during quiet moments. When things get going, the living room fills with tinny music, whimpering animals and whirling children. Screams, crashes and kabooms are not uncommon. But during her first weeks back, Mrs. Frank found the fracas overwhelming.
"I am not used to this much stimulation. On ship, you didn't have phone calls, traffic and last-minute things," said Mrs. Frank, who can now comfortably eat pizza, discipline children, direct her husband and talk to visitors at the same time. "There were two occasions when I had to tell the children I need some time alone."
When she didn't want to be alone, Mrs. Frank yearned to be close with the children. But she needed to discover who they had become. Suppertime had become disorganized in her absence, and the children did not always want her to tuck them in.
She started "family night" as a time for the four Franks to talk
together. The entire family sat on the living room floor and discussed what they had done that week that made them feel good and set goals.
Activities like planning Evan's birthday party or visiting King's Dominion. Chores like painting the bedrooms.
"Before I used to sit on their beds and asked them how their day was, but that wasn't natural when I came back. I didn't know what to do as mom," said Mrs. Frank. "Now I am more into the feeling. We can do things more naturally."
It feels natural to the rest of the family, too.
Joel says it's a treat to see his wife more relaxed about the little things -- unmade beds, plastic plates at dinner, the occasional fast food meal.
The two, despite 14 years of marriage, bill and coo like newlyweds. They have even spent several romantic weekends together since Mrs. Frank's return.
The children also delight in being a whole family again. Lauren squeals happily when her mother picks her up. Evan says gaving her back is "wonderful." "It was a little strange at first," he conceded. "But it's getting better."