News of deaths intensifies families' torturous waits

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Donna Bruce trembled as she climbed the stairs to tell her husband about the grisly Marine helicopter crash in Kuwait. The Bruces knew their son was there, in a Marine unit that flies choppers.

Was he among the dead?

As this cruel possibility dawned on them, Donna and Bob Bruce stood silently in their bedroom in Annapolis and held each other. They slept fitfully, and at 4:10 Friday morning, Bob Bruce awoke and looked out the window through the darkness. A Vietnam veteran, he knew what those government sedans looked like, the ones driven by those who have to tell families they no longer have a father, a husband, a daughter, a son.

There was - thank goodness - no sedan. And for the first time in six hours, the Bruces breathed normally, deciding that for now, anyway, their son, Maj. Robert W. Bruce, a 32-year-old Naval Academy graduate, was probably OK. "We're going to drive ourselves crazy with this," Donna Bruce told her husband.

Reports of the war's first U.S. casualties have brought a chilling new reality to military families. The small but growing American body count has roiled them with fresh waves of anxiety, reminders that despite video game-like images of high-tech missiles hitting targets with precision, wars are the same as ever, stained with blood.

Donna Bruce doesn't remember feeling as jittery when her husband was fighting in Vietnam. The news wasn't instantaneous. You didn't often hear of something awful on TV before you got the knock on the door. Now, thanks to real-time reporting from the front lines, even sketchy news reports can take on an air of omen.

"We just have to live our lives with this shadow hanging over us," says Donna Bruce, 60, a retired health care executive, whose son stayed in the reserves after seven years as an active-duty Marine. "It's horrible, it's frankly horrible. I don't think I ever expected this to be as emotionally exhausting as it is."

She knew that her son's presence on that ill-fated helicopter was a remote possibility. Still, she began a kind of grieving Thursday night, wondering how she would get word out to the rest of the family if the worst came to pass.

Her husband, a tough-talking retired Army colonel who once taught at West Point, found solace in logic. He parses news reports of injuries and deaths for troop identification numbers and locations, relaxing when he is able to rule his son out. He feels better, he says, "if I can figure, if I can rationalize."

Like other Marylanders with loved ones in uniform, he says, he felt stabs of pain hearing that at least two American casualties have ties to the state. Staff Sgt. Kendall Damon Waters-Bey, 29, who died on the CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter Friday morning in Kuwait, grew up in Northeast Baltimore. Lt. Thomas Mullen Adams, 27, of La Mesa, Calif., who died when two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters collided Saturday, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997.

Amanda Wager, 20, of Essex, lights a candle every day now - for her father, Sgt. William Wager, who is in the Army National Guard and is to deploy any day to the Middle East. "When I go to blow out the candle, I say a small prayer," she says. "I'm praying that he comes home in one piece."

Television, she says, is a daily torment. The pride she drew from friends' talk about her father's service to the country has been made hollow by the televised images of crackling gunfire and thunderous explosions over Baghdad. She never agreed with this war, she says, and the horrific tableaux have only hardened her opposition. "It's now becoming real in my eyes there's going to be more death," says Wager. "In all honesty, I've been trying not to think about it because everything I think about makes me cry."

As hopes for a short and tidy war fade, many families have been unable to peel themselves away from the television. It has become a tether, however inadequate, to people no longer easily reachable by phone or e-mail.

Joe Lettich, 58, has lost interest in tinkering with his Jeep and cutting the grass outside his home in Howard County. He is focused now on his son, Kevin, 20, an air traffic controller on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, somewhere in the Middle East.

"The mundane, everyday things are being taken up by the watching of TV," says Lettich, a Veterans Affairs employee.

"Every time something happens, it's like `Oh, God, no,'" says his wife, Tricia, 49, a loan officer. "But what can you do?"

"I'm trying not to overreact to every little thing they say on TV," she adds. "But you can't not watch it, because you want to know what's happening."

To their relief, the Lettiches received a call from their son yesterday morning.

In Catonsville, Peter La Count is ingesting news in small doses. He doesn't want to be overwhelmed by fears about his wife's safety. Nor does he want their 2-year-old daughter, Grace, to see him worry.

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