News from Baghdad buoys hopes of families

Home front: Loved ones see victories in the Iraqi capital as `one step closer' to safe return of U.S. troops.

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Kimberly A. C. Wilson | Kimberly A. C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Neil Gardner just got engaged, and for the first time since the war began, his relatives are indulging in plans for the future. The wedding date hinges on the return of Gardner's brother, Marine Reserve Cpl. Michael Paul Gardner II, who is serving in Iraq.

Yesterday, the end of Mike Gardner's wartime assignment suddenly seemed within reach as U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad.

The act signaled the end of the regime and, perhaps, the war as well.

"There it goes, boom, goodbye!" said Gardner's father, Michael Sr., his eyes locked on the television screen at his home in Hunt Valley. "So symbolic ... it feels one step closer to Mike coming home."

For military families, the latest news from Baghdad holds the promise of the war's end and joyful homecomings, but hope is tempered with anxiety for their loved ones stationed on uncertain ground in the Middle East.

In Annapolis, the historic moment set Donna Bruce's mind on parties. There is the wedding Marine Maj. Robert W. Bruce is supposed to attend in September, and the mundane family gatherings spent smoking cigars and launching potatoes off their dock on Weems Creek.

But prudence follows each fantasy about her son's return. He is with the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, which is never far from danger. And even as she watched the statue fall in Firdos Square in Iraq's capital city yesterday, her thoughts raced through worst-case scenarios: last-ditch biological or chemical attacks, snipers bent on picking off American troops.

"I still expect Saddam to come up with something," Bruce said yesterday. "I'm very hesitant to think he's not going to do anything. I'm very cautious about my expectations."

The tension has kept Catonsville resident Peter La Count away from his television since the war began March 19. But he senses that a turning point had been reached - even though he doubts his wife, Susan Sancilio La Count, 41, who is serving in an Army reserve medical logistics battalion, will be home any sooner.

"It doesn't look like there's any way she'll be home before six months," he said with a sigh. "I've got to get used to that. There's still a peace to win, so to speak."

He doesn't want to assume the fighting is over. He doesn't want to assume anything.

The Bush administration's message out of Washington matched La Count's caution.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday warned that dangerous days may still lie ahead for American and British forces.

Nevertheless, Tricia Lettich, whose 20-year-old son, Kevin, is aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf, was buoyed by what she saw yesterday morning flipping between CNN and MSNBC.

The sight of Iraqis brazenly defiling their dictator's image offered an answer for skeptics who questioned U.S. and British motives for the war.

"Someone said this morning, this is almost like the Berlin Wall coming down - this is a historic moment," exulted Lettich, 49, who lives in southern Howard County. "It's proof that we are actually liberating these people, that they have been oppressed for a very long time."

"It's what we had all hoped for. Once they felt out of danger, they would come out and celebrate their freedom," she added.

The news from Baghdad was heartening for the wife of Army Maj. Robert E. Appleby Jr., assigned to classified psychological operations somewhere in Iraq.

"It seems a little less hostile," said Melissa Appleby of Bel Air, who gave birth to the couple's fifth child the day the war began.

"I am apprehensive but optimistic. But, for us, it still means Bob will be gone until the end of the year. He will be part of the rebuilding."

For relatives of servicemen and servicewomen waiting to be called up, the successes in Baghdad come with expectations that additional support units will be called up soon.

Michael Wigglesworth Sr. predicted yesterday that his 35-year-old son, Mike Jr., will soon be shipped out along with fellow members of Maryland National Guard's 1229th Transportation Company, after spending five anxious weeks awaiting orders to deploy at Fort Lee, Va.

"I imagine there's still going to be a need for trucks over there," said the elder Wigglesworth, seated in his office in Crisfield.

Miles away, in North Baltimore, Martha Gardner tried not to read too much into the symbolic collapse of Hussein's regime.

A third-grade teacher at Boy's Latin School, she learned the news from an e-mail sent to her classroom computer by her husband.

For a moment, excitement lighted up her face, and she laughed out loud.

Then she gathered herself, listening to the low sounds of guitar music she uses to calm her boisterous pupils.

"You know, it isn't over until it's really over. I'm not praying any less because nothing is definitive, yet."

Her pupils, mostly 8- and 9-year-olds, have shipped reams of letters to her son, a 33-year-old construction worker who renovated an old dairy house in Catonsville with his little brother.

Yesterday, one of her pupils, Phil McGuire, handed in another letter to the Marine that the boys worry about constantly. He is serving with the E Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

"I hope the war ends soon so you can come home," the boy wrote, closing with the Marines' motto, "Semper Fi."

Sun staff writers Ariel Sabar, Mary Gail Hare, Jamie Smith Hopkins and Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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