A year ago today, T. Ann McElroy sat shivering on a cot in the belly of an Army plane headed for Saudi Arabia. She was unaware that she would spend Christmas morning guarding the perimeter of a desert camp with an M-16 rifle in her arms.
This Christmas, the 24-year-old Maryland National Guard specialist also will be on duty -- making cannelloni, manicotti and lasagna at the Columbia restaurant where she works.
"I can make 60 pounds of cheese mix sleeping," quipped Specialist McElroy, among the dozens of guardsmen attending the 290th Military Police Company's annual Christmas party at the Towson Armory yesterday.
More than any word or emotion, it was the presence of the soldiers in their khaki uniforms that marked the difference between the company's holiday party of 1990 and 1991.
Last year, in mid-December, the men and women of the 290th flew to Saudi Arabia in the Desert Storm sweep. Citizen soldiers, they left jobs as electricians and police officers, homemakers and secretaries, law students and home improvement contractors to guard the prisoners of the Persian Gulf War, a duty they performed until they returned April 22.
"The day he got home, it was back to normal," Lori Bokeno said of her camouflage-clad husband David, whose studies at Towson State University were interrupted by the gulf war. "That's one six months I want to forget."
As for Mr. Bokeno, he said he's "very happy to be home -- still."
For the couple, life in their Hamilton apartment went on just as it had before. The 26-year-old guardsman returned to Towson State, where he expects to graduate in May with an education degree. Mrs. Bokeno glady returned to her husband the responsibility of managing the household bills. If one thing lingers for them from the war, it's their desire not to be reminded of it.
Mrs. Bokeno won't watch a video of the 290th's Christmas in the desert, and her husband says one viewing was enough for him.
"It was too painful," said Mr. Bokeno. "People don't understand unless they were there."
In the eight months since the Towson-based company's return, there have been changes of all kinds. New babies have been born and others conceived. Weddings have been announced, and a few relationships have broken up, as well.
The command of the 290th changed in August, and the company's ranks grew by 17 recruits.
While a dozen guardsmen re-enlisted, at least one finished his service and several others went on inactive status.
"We keep saying we're poor but grateful," said Lynn Nichols, whose husband, Sgt. John P. Nichols, served with the 290th in Saudi Arabia. "To come back and go into a recession, we've never recouped. Financially, we'll never catch up."
But Mr. Nichols, a veteran now of two wars (he served in Vietnam, too) isn't fazed by the family finances.
Putting "the responsibilities I had over there" side-by-side with 00 bills, "there's no comparison," said Mr. Nichols, an employee of the Sears Roebuck Co. who's been promoted since his return.
"Everybody here is damn lucky that things went our way [in the Persian Gulf], or we would still be over there."
When Robert Vacovsky returned home from the gulf in April, he found the home improvement company he began in Pasadena in serious debt. His young wife and mother had tried to keep the business afloat, but hiring workers to replace Mr. Vacovsky was costly. In three months, though, Mr. Vacovsky had brought his firm out of the red.
"I came back and had to go directly to work. I didn't have time to do anything. I'm still plugging at it," said the 26-year-old owner of R.A.V. Home Improvements.
After five years in the National Guard, Mr. Vacovsky left the guard when his tour of service was up this summer.
"To me, my family and the money I can make is more important," said Mr. Vacovsky. "My family is the most important."
And it's growing -- Mr. Vacovsky's wife, Alaunda, is pregnant with the couple's first child.
T. Ann McElroy has yet to go to culinary school -- she was on her way there when the military police company got activated in the fall of 1990. But she's getting some hands-on experience at an Italian restaurant in Columbia.
"Thanksgiving for me this year was difficult. I just remembered what I did last year. On Thanksgiving I was firing a shotgun for the first time at Fort Meade," said the 24-year-old cook, who prepared a turkey dinner for her sister this year.
"Four years and nine months ago, I took an oath that I would do this [be in the National Guard] . . . I would do it again. I think I'd be a lot more prepared for it. I would go -- I wouldn't be the first to volunteer -- but I would go again."