THE CRISIS AT HOME Parents of military personnel cope with uncertainty


SOMETIMES THOUGHTS about her son wake Mary Jane Wright in the middle of the night.

"I wake up and my mind is racing: 'What can I send him? Should I get up and write him a letter?' When I talk to him by phone, what if it's the last time I hear his voice?" said the mother of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Donald Kahrs, who is scheduled to be sent to Saudi Arabia soon.

Sometimes Rosalie Rogers tries too hard to read between the lines of letters from her son, Army Capt. Charles Rogers Jr., who is stationed in the Mideast.

So when he wrote at Thanksgiving, enumerating all the things for which he was thankful, she thought he was trying to say goodbye.

"It was a beautiful Thanksgiving letter. Of course, I took it the wrong way," she said and smiled -- a little.

As the U.N. Security Council's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's forces to leave Kuwait approaches, many parents, like Ms. Wright and Ms. Rogers, find themselves edgily watching the calendar, wondering what will happen.

And on a recent Sunday afternoon, nearly 50 mothers and fathers of military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia sought solace in a support group.

The parents met in Ed and Barbara Brody's Guilford home to share their thoughts and fears. They began by agreeing that their children are grown up now, that they're very proud of them. They laughed together about silly things that triggered happy memories of their children: walking his dog, stumbling upon his size 14 sneakers, hearing her favorite song.

Then, in the next moments, many admitted that they lie awake at night, waiting for them to come home.

That their children are trained professionals -- helicopter pilots, medical aides, weaponry experts -- makes no difference, said Mr. Brody, a handsome man with a firm handshake and commanding presence, who founded the group with his wife, a social worker. "You think you're tough. I'm a former officer, but you're not so tough when it's your son."

Parents throughout the nation are experiencing similar emotions, said Jon Perez, director of the LifePLUS Foundation in Los Angeles, who has counseled relatives of military personnel. The combination of "being proud of what your children are doing, being massively afraid and being torn between fear and support of your country" is normal, he said.

In fact, these feelings are echoed throughout history and literature, he said. "In the Iliad, those feeling are right there. In letters from parents to sons during the Civil War, they're right there. We're not talking about anything new -- we are trying to piece together what will help."

The knowledge that they were not alone in their worries prompted the Brodys to found the group last month. Although there are family support centers on each military base, they generally are for dependents of military personnel -- and not necessarily for parents, said Major Doug Hart, public affairs officer for the Department of Defense.

And despite the many organizations in the country -- family support groups, protest groups, groups formed to send care packages -- there didn't seem to be any specifically for parents, Mr. Brody said. As word of this group spreads, inquiries from parents throughout the nation have been trickling in.

The idea is to combat worry by sharing information, emotional support and tips -- from what kind of sausage travels well to how to cope with stress. "We are not a political action group," said Mr. Brody, chief executive officer of Brody Truck Rental and father of Army Lt. Stephen Brody, who has been in Saudi Arabia since August. "We started it because we felt people felt like we did: anxiety, different emotions, up and down with the news every day."

At the group's second meeting, a colonel from the Pentagon spoke about the climate and customs of Saudi Arabia, as well as duties military personnel may be performing.

As the Brodys passed out detailed maps of Saudi Arabia, some parents agreed that knowledge is oddly reassuring. "I didn't know where my son really was. We had an old atlas and we couldn't even find half the places they talked about. It made me feel so good to know exactly where he was," said Rosedale-area resident Helen Knapik, whose son, U.S. Army Lt Col. Daniel Knapik, has been in Saudi Arabia since early fall.

And a few shared tiny triumphs: Baltimore resident Nancy Marsiglia delightedly announced that she had successfully mailed a roast beef to her son, U.S. Army Specialist 1st Class Patrick Marsiglia.

But some parents said they were feeling emotional ups and downs. A few have sought counseling. One mother had been hospitalized.

Still others said that in the wake of the Vietnam War, they hadn't expected this country to face the threat of war again in their lifetimes. "I just wasn't prepared for this development. I guess nobody ever is," says Baltimore resident Dolores H. Cannon, mother of U.S Army 1st Lt. Stephen L. Cannon, who is stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, and is scheduled to leave for the Gulf soon. But, she added about the support group, "the best thing was just being there with people in the same situation, just knowing that you're not alone."

Involvement in efforts to support the troops has helped some parents. Ms. Wright, of West Friendship, founded the Maryland chapter of Operation Orange Ribbon -- a nationwide effort that encourages people to display orange ribbons on car antennas, mailboxes and doors in a show of support for those in Saudi Arabia.

For Baltimore resident Josephine Alston, comfort comes in the mundane task of walking her son's dogs. Both her son, Lloyd Alston Jr., and daughter-in-law, Priscilla M. Alston, are U.S. Army majors in Saudi Arabia. "I have the dogs and as I walk them, it just reminds me of them both," she said.

But sometimes tears help as well, she said. "Sometimes you just cry and get it out and once you've gotten it out you pull yourself together and go on."

For more information, call Ed Brody, 947-5800 (days), and 338-1331 (nights).

Coping with stress

Here are suggestions for parents and relatives to reduce the stress of having a loved one in Saudi Arabia:

* Accept that you don't have control over events in the Mideast. Concentrate on things you can control: your welfare, your finances, your job.

* Develop daily goals -- shopping, going to work, sending a

package. This focuses attention on those things you do have control over.

* Gather information about the situation; it can be reassuring.

* Maintain a routine including rest and relaxation.

* Keep those cards and letters going: Communication with the person who is away will help both relative at home and him or her.

Source: Jon Perez, The LifePLUS Foundation, Los Angeles

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