Television beats mail to home with latest news of soldiers


Like members of many families with relatives in the gulf war, Louise Lerario of Damascus, Md., has yet to hear directly from her son at the front. But she has watched him on television.

An Army company commander, Capt. Mike Lerario was explaining in a broadcast interview how he did his job leading an 82nd Airborne Division scouting party along a border lined with Iraqi positions. "Our mission is to see and be seen," he told the interviewer. "We're like the old cavalry of the Western frontier. We're a picket line of sorts."

His mother sat home in Montgomery County watching with approval. "I like to hope Mike is being original with that," she said.

"This war is entirely different," said Mrs. Lerario, who was a teen-ager during World War II. "It's electronic. It's computerized. It's nothing like anything we've ever experienced before."

News of the war reaches family television screens sometimes weeks earlier than troops abroad can call or mail assurances home about their safety. The rapid movement of troops to new forward positions has interrupted mail delivery from the war zone. Some families say the mail they have received this week was sent before the war started. And they assume that the soldiers on the move have had fewer chances to call.

So, some family members such as Donna Jones, a letter carrier from Westminster, say they comfort themselves saying, "no news is good news." Her son Stephen Jones belongs to an Army communications unit attached to the 82nd Airborne.

"I know if there was something wrong, I would know," she said, thinking of the military car that pulls up to notify a family of a soldier's death. "As long as I don't open my door and see two military men standing there, I'm fine."

But the fast pace of the news can create apprehension, as news flashes of death and danger suddenly disturb whatever calm families at home have managed to achieve.

Since the war began, Anne Day of Westminster hasn't heard from her son, a Marine corporal. She has seen television broadcasts about Marines dying in sporadic artillery exchanges at the front.

"That's my son's battalion," she said. "I've gotten so I don't listen to the news anymore."

One who has heard recently is Sharon Sommers of Union Mills, whose Marine corporal son called one night last week at midnight. It was his first call since the war began. "He said they don't get told too much, that we back here know more than they do," she said, while sitting in a Westminster National Guard armory just before the start of a recent support-group meeting for families of the troops. "I feel a lot better. I was really worried."

But when the support-group leader asked her to share news of the call, Sommers was too overcome by emotion to answer.

Calls home seem to have mixed effects on the soldiers calling and on their families at home. Barbara Mischke of Lutherville heard four days after the war began from her son Kurt, a specialist in a National Guard military police unit that is trained to guard prisoners of war.

"Physically he was doing all right," she said, except for frequent Scud missile alerts that had been rousing him from sleep. "Getting up and putting the gas mask on was really disrupting their rest."

Otherwise, "he seemed pretty good," Mischke said. The rest of the Mischke family, joined by Kurt's fiancee, was on hand to talk with him when the call came. But, as the conversation was ending, "there was some emotion there," she said. "We had each other after we hung up, but he didn't have that on the other end."

Karen Gallardo of Parkville received a call the same day from her sister Terri Huber, a specialist in Mischke's unit. As of the day of that call, the unit had no prisoners to guard, Gallardo said.

Huber told her that morale was high, though Gallardo believed, "the phone has ears and she couldn't really say anything."

Huber gave assurances that she was "safe and she was OK," Gallardo said. "But then the phone call was cut short because there was an air raid."

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