Countdown to war wearing on families

Limbo: With no shots fired and no diplomatic solution in sight, many are left waiting for anything that will bring their relatives home soon.

March 17, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

For Bobbie Keegan, even President Bush's stern demand for immediate United Nations action on Iraq seemed like just one more delay. Her husband, an Army sergeant, had left home for what was supposed to be a war, and yesterday there were only more heated words.

If the military was going to take her husband from her, she says, the least it could do was get this war over with.

"Once it starts, you'll have some kind of an idea of a future," says Keegan, whose husband, Sgt. William Wager, is in the Maryland National Guard. "Whether it's a good future or a bad future, at least it will be something."

For many families with relatives in uniform, the countdown to war has felt more like a long, winding march. Many service members have been gone from home for weeks. Their spouses have been learning to live with smaller budgets and more housework. Their children have been coming home to one parent.

But with no shots fired and no diplomatic solution in sight, many families have felt caught in an exasperating limbo.

In the break room at her job Thursday, Keegan, 36, found herself talking back to the television. Her co-workers at the Sam's Club in Baltimore fell silent - they knew how much she missed her husband, and here was some newscaster saying that the deadline for Iraq to comply with arms inspections might be postponed yet again.

"I was telling the TV, `You guys have this deadline, and why do you want to sit here and basically play with it?'" Keegan recalls, with a little embarrassment. "`This is not a child's game. You can't move the piece back when you feel like it.'"

As the waiting game wears on, some families have devoured news, parsing every presidential utterance and dissecting each diplomatic chess move. Others have refused to turn on the television.

Some have tossed off letters to their sweethearts every day. Some have built an emotional fortress by losing themselves in work.

Capt. Jackie Mudd, 36, an active-duty Air Force nurse who lives in Bowie, has asked her 10-year-old daughter, Monika, to keep a diary of her feelings during their separation.

She sent Monika to live with her grandparents in Kentucky last month after the Bush administration raised the terrorist alert level to "high risk" and rumors came that she and her husband, Army Reserve Capt. Lee Mudd, would be swept up in the huge mobilization for war.

When they all reunite, she will read the diary. She is hoping to recognize in it the same daughter she said goodbye to at the airport a few weeks ago. "I'm hoping there's some normalcy in her day-to-day life. I'm hoping this hasn't changed her - changed her to be resentful."

She cannot answer Monika's questions about when they might see each other again. And watching television news for clues has become "too depressing."

"It's kind of an emotional roller coaster," she says. "One minute you're listening to the president say, `We're giving Saddam Hussein an ultimatum,' ... and then the U.N. has decided to give them more time, and then you're waiting again."

Donna Bruce, 60, of Annapolis knows her son will be in the line of fire if there is war. Marine Maj. Robert W. Bruce is in Kuwait with the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, a Reserve unit that parachutes into hostile territory and tells fighter planes and ships where to aim. He last saw his parents in early January.

Donna Bruce goes to Mass twice a week to pray for the Marine Corps and for the president. She is dreading the start of war while craving it at the same time.

"I want to give peace a chance, but not forever," says the retired health care executive. "I want to get it over with so Bob can come home. On the other hand, I'd really rather not have war."

The unknowns have made it difficult for some service members to talk with their children. Shannon and Ed Dutch, Army reservists from Odenton, have decided not to tell Dominique, 2, and Ryan, 7, when they'll be together as a family again.

"Why build up their hopes?" Shannon Dutch says matter-of-factly. Her husband left for Afghanistan in September. Now her military police battalion has been called up for a probable deployment to the Persian Gulf. The children are staying with their grandparents.

The wait is no easier for those in the Middle East.

Joe Lettich, 58, of Howard County says that his son, Kevin, and other sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt are growing impatient with the long days at sea.

"They're all stressed out," says Lettich, who trades e-mails with his son. "He said, `You probably know more about what's going on than I do. ... I wish things would get started.'"

So the people back home pour their hearts into letters. They send chocolate chip cookies, energy bars and wet wipes. They wait for the phone to ring.

In Crisfield, the small crabbing town on the Eastern Shore, Carolyn Evans is coping with her husband's absence by staying busy. There is the growing bakery business. There are the many functions she attends as a City Council member.

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