Families of absent soldiers ease fears by sharing them


Each time she hears a military tune on her workout tape as she walks the mall for exercise, Bonnie Gray imagines it's music welcoming her daughter's National Guard unit home from Saudi Arabia.

"I think I'm going to see this parade and it's going to be wild," Gray said.

That's one small way she copes with fearing for her daughter, Spec. Bridgette Novak. That's one bit of advice she could share with families like hers whose loved ones are serving in the desert with the 290th Military Police Company.

The families of the 290th met last night in the Towson Armory with a professional counselor who urged them to get to know each other and spill their feelings, rather than hold them inside.

Theirs is one of 18 Maryland National Guard family support groups and one of four whose family members have been deployed.

The counseling portion of the meeting was confidential. Gray said the general feeling in the room was: "We've gone beyond missing our people, and now we're afraid for them."

As other family members came out of the meeting with the counselor, many said they couldn't share their own hardships with the others just yet.

If she had tried to talk about how she missed her husband, Tamara Staniewski said, "I might have gotten too upset." But listening to others showed her "everybody is going through a hard time for sure."

Staniewski, of Catonsville, keeps in touch with other women whose husbands are serving with her husband, Ray. And she plans to come to more of these monthly meetings because, she said, "I feel closer to my husband when I'm here."

The group also offers practical advice.

Chief Warrant Officer Trish Putman, who coordinates the Guard's family support programs, spoke about the do's and don'ts of getting mail through the slow but certain delivery to the troops and how to file income taxes and handle household finances alone.

Pat Fallon explained how she had worked with Putman and the Red Cross to flesh out the news she had heard about her husband, Ed, a sergeant, getting hurt. Within seven days, Fallon learned her husband had slipped while digging bunkers around his encampment. He tore some muscle fibers in his back, but would soon recover.

"We have a lot of support systems around us," Fallon said, urging the families to rely on them, rather than worry or panic in solitude.

The counselor advised reaching beyond the family support group to neighbors and other friends, too.

But one woman said, "I can't tell people my husband is gone."

She is worried about crime. For instance, this week she said she knew better than to ask anyone for help shoveling the snow from her walk. "They'll be the same ones that will be breaking in when I'm at work," she said.

The woman, who works at a bank, said the meeting still was helpful. It was a time to cry, she said. "I have to keep a smile on my face at work and feel these emotions, too."

The meeting followed a similar mood swing. It opened with singing, clapping and hugging and talk of creating an upbeat newsletter for the 290th and its families.

Another guest speaker, the Rev. Frank Trotter of the Reisterstown United Methodist Church, encouraged the families to channel their anxiety into helping others. But first he admitted to being temporarily at a loss for words addressing this group.

"I thought of cheering you up," Trotter said. "And then I thought that wasn't really appropriate."

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