Military families on edge as Iraq erupts

Fear: The possibility of more casualties and more call-ups has many concerned.

Conflict In Iraq

April 08, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Military families are on edge as violence flares

When Debbie Pratte spoke yesterday to her son, a 19-year-old near the end of a one-year Persian Gulf tour with the Maryland National Guard, they talked not of war, but of cell phones.

Pratte had heard about the American contractors burned by an Iraqi mob and strung from a bridge last week. She knew about the 12 Marines killed Tuesday and the widening Shiite revolt that has jinxed American plans for an orderly transfer of power.

But it was easier, somehow, to concentrate on the features of the new cell phone that she was buying Spc. Alaine Pratte II as a welcome-home gift.

"Although I want to know, I don't want to know," Pratte, 43, a carpenter from Deal Island, says of her son's vulnerability to the new violence and to a last-minute tour extension. "That's my baby over there," she says. "He's coming home in three weeks, and that's all I want to know."

As insurgents have spread a new wave of violence across Iraq, with at least 34 Americans killed since Sunday, the families of Maryland National Guard members and reservists are grappling with a complicated mix of emotions.

Families whose loved ones are back home expressed relief, but also anxiety about future call-ups and sorrow for the families of fallen troops. Those with relatives still in the Middle East pray that the growing chaos does not postpone long-awaited homecomings, or worse.

Several families interviewed yesterday said their support for the war had not wavered.

But Pratte is angry. She thinks that President Bush hoodwinked Americans into a conflict that put her youngest child in harm's way, as a gunner with the Crisfield-based 1229th Transportation Company.

"It's not right that I have to sit here worrying about my son for something the president lied about," she said, alluding to White House claims about weapons of mass destruction. "If it takes everything I have, I will never let him go back there."

Roughly 2,500 Maryland guard members and reservists are on active duty in connection with the Iraq conflict and the war on terrorism, down from about 4,300 a year ago, according to Pentagon figures.

Maj. Susan Sancilio La Count, 42, of Catonsville, returned last August from six months in Kuwait with the 424th Medical Logistics Battalion. She retired her uniform, after 20 years in the Army Reserves, almost as soon as she got back.

At the breakfast table yesterday morning, her husband, Peter La Count, who had raised their 3-year-old daughter alone in Susan's absence, looked at the newspaper headlines and had a few simple words for his wife.

"Boy, I'm glad you're not over there," he recalled telling her. "She agreed. She was just sort of shaking her head. It's upsetting. It's just upsetting."

Susan La Count, a speech pathologist with the Howard County schools, is happy to be through with the air-raid alarms that sent her unit scurrying for their bio-chem warfare suits as many as a dozen times a day. Now, she can focus on taking her daughter Grace to the swings at the park, going to art films with her husband, and plotting an Easter egg hunt.

"As a mother, I am just glad to be home," she said. "I am proud I served the time I did. I just think it would be a very difficult time to be back there."

Gayle Saunders-Christopher, 57, of Harford County, felt a nearly constant anxiety during her husband's tour in Baghdad last year with a Special Operations unit of the Maryland National Guard.

"Any time bad news came across, you just waited that evening for his e-mail to come through that he was fine," she recalled.

But since Master Sgt. Richard Christopher's return in November, she says, "it's not as personally stressful."

What troubles her now is his possible return to the Middle East next year. She has been fretfully parsing the news of the past week for signs of a prolonged American presence in the region.

"I'm watching, for him, to know what he's going to be walking back into," she said. "I'm hoping that the Iraqis will be able to have their police and their soldiers ready to take over."

Saunders-Christopher, an animal shelter supervisor in Baltimore County, has been trying to cram in all the things they missed during their year apart. They have visited their double-wide mobile home outside Daytona, Fla., three times in the past few months, passing the hours casting a fishing line into the St. John's River.

"It's certainly a relief that he's here now," she says.

Army Lt. Col. Robert Appleby's trip into Baghdad early last year with the Upper Marlboro unit of the 11th Psychological Operations Battalion was a mixed blessing. The dangerous assignment qualified him to return home to his family in Bel Air after just seven months. But because his original orders were for two years, he may be called back.

"It worries me that he would have to go back and be part of what's happening there on a day-to-day basis," said his wife, Melissa Appleby, 34, who gave birth to her fifth child, Camron, the same day her husband left for Kuwait.

The past week's news has intensified her fears of another long separation of her husband from their children, ages 1 to 8. But her support for the war has not faltered with the news of increasing American casualties. Flare-ups like those in Ramadi and Fallujah are unavoidable in a country making so abrupt a transition from dictatorship to democracy, she says.

"Not a lot of people understand why we're over there," says Appleby, who is vice president of an appraisal firm. "I do."

All the same, she has shielded her children from the news, and from the likelihood of their father's redeployment. "What they don't know at this point, they don't need to know," she said.

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