Long wait for words: `I'm OK'

Families: The war's start makes it harder for troops to touch base, and their silence has increased relatives' worries.

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Mary Gail Hare | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Sun is following several families with loved ones in the armed forces. This is one in a series of occasional articles.

With a laptop of his own and a shared Internet connection, Kevin Lettich e-mailed his parents all the time from an aircraft carrier in the waters of the Middle East.

Then the fighting started, and the e-mail stopped.

It's a fact of war that hasn't changed with the communications revolution: Soldiers fighting a war don't have much time to talk. Many don't have easy access to computers in the first place, and they have to wait in a long line to dash out a quick note to loved ones. Those on the front lines are cut off completely.

That means more anxiety for the families back home, who are hearing less just as they're being bombarded with 24-hour news of dead and captured Americans. All they want now is the simplest message of all in a communication-saturated world: "I'm OK."

For some, the only way to stay in touch at the moment is decidedly slow-tech.

"He told me that he can't call anymore, and e-mail is limited," said Melissa J. Appleby, whose husband, Maj. Robert E. Appleby Jr., is an Army reservist called to service from their home in Bel Air. "We are down to letter-writing, and those are taking a long time to reach him. I have no idea even where he is. When I don't hear, that is when I worry the most."

Deborah J. Hooper of Westminster has heard nothing from her 24-year-old son, who leads a platoon of about 30 Marines, since a letter he mailed March 8. Forget e-mail: "Sand gets into everything," 1st Lt. Randy D. Hooper told her.

Peter La Count of Catonsville knows the calls from his wife, an Army reservist, will be short, infrequent and - because it happened once before - quite possibly cut off midsentence by technical trouble. They're keeping diaries, a way to fill in the gaps when it's all over.

And Essex resident Stacie Whitaker, 18, one of the rare, fortunate ones whose Air Force father e-mails her each and every day, has twice "flipped out" over rumors that soon there will be nothing but silence.

"This is the first time I've been without my father for more than two or three weeks," she said. "It's really hard."

No family has the same story to tell because communication - or the lack of it - is driven by the soldier's location. Military on the move can't call or e-mail.

"There's no cell phone towers out in the middle of the desert," said Lt. Col. Boyd D. Collins, an Army Reserve spokesman.

Lt. Col. A.C. Roper of the Army Reserve, an Alabama police captain who returned from Afghanistan in June, said the troops used e-mail as their primary connection home. But the systems worked only sporadically at first and were often turned off shortly before a mission, he said. The harsh living conditions also played havoc with the equipment.

This time, some blackouts have been short and not sweet.

Sykesville resident Margaret M. Knoerlein was hearing regularly from her son, a 21-year-old petty officer in the Navy, until last week. Then: nothing. Yesterday, the restriction that kept e-mail from coming or going on Craig R. Knoerlein's ship was lifted, and she had two messages waiting for her.

On Lettich's aircraft carrier, e-mail could enter but not exit when the bombing began. His mother, Tricia Lettich, knows the system can go down anytime because that happened occasionally during Kevin Lettich's Afghanistan mission. But the Howard County resident was glad when she checked her account Monday and found a message from him.

He couldn't say much, and, like many overseas, he didn't have time to capitalize words. But to her, it spoke volumes:

"well the email is working again. thank god. its really hard when you can't talk to anyone."

Tricia Lettich figures the one thing she can do for her son is stay in touch. She sends him e-mail daily but has also started mailing cards twice a week so her 20-year-old will have something physical from home. Care packages go out regularly, too.

With letters taking three to four weeks to arrive, Bob and Donna Bruce of Annapolis went to the post office Monday to mail their son a package for Easter. More than a week has passed since they have heard from Maj. Robert W. Bruce, 32, an officer with an elite Marine reserve unit that assists infantry. "We understand, but it still frustrates," said Bob Bruce, a Vietnam veteran.

Whitaker, who lives five minutes from her father's house in Essex, visits every day to take care of his bills and - more important - check e-mail. Sometimes they fight, to her frustration. Master Sgt. Teddy Whitaker is tense, and so is she.

He tells her that he misses his PlayStation, that his cot is too small for his 6-foot-2 frame, that he's tired of the routine: get up, take a shower, go to work handling supplies, head back, and maybe take another shower to get the dust off before bed. He says he loves her. "I send him e-mails that make me cry: `I'm worried about you, Dad. Come home soon,'" she said.

Gayle Saunders-Christopher, a Harford County resident whose husband hasn't been able to contact her since March 18, is left to think of the good old days so recently passed. Richard Christopher, a master sergeant with the Maryland National Guard's special operations detachment, had been e-mailing her nearly every day and calling her several times a week:

"It was really nice then," she said. "Now it's just wait and see, hope for the best and hope it's over soon."

Sun staff writers Ariel Sabar and Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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