Cambridge comforts woman whose husband and son are in gulf WAR IN THE GULF


CAMBRIDGE -- War has twice hit home for Connie Peters.

The mother of two grown children watched her oldest son head for the Persian Gulf on an aircraft carrier in August. Four months later, she was saying goodbye to her husband, a member of the Maryland Army National Guard's 200th Military Police Company that had been activated for duty in the Middle East.

In the lonely hours after her husband, Staff Sgt. Leon Peters, 56, boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia, Connie Peters told her youngest son, Shawn, the only family she has left in Maryland, "We're on our own now and we'll have to make out the best we can."

Little did she realize then the depth of compassion in residents of her lifelong home, Cambridge, a sprawling little city on the Choptank River.

In the weeks that followed her husband's Dec. 8 departure, Mrs. Peters received calls from more than 100 friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers.

"People say they care, but I didn't realize just how caring they could be and just how sincere they were," Mrs. Peters said.

People called with words of support and offers of help not once, but over and over. Some stopped at Benedict Florist outside Cambridge, where Mrs. Peters works as a flower designer, to let her know they were thinking of her and her family. Friends invited her out for the holidays and -- anticipating the loneliness night would bring -- made up an extra bed and asked her to spend the night.

"This is a small community and they're aware of what's going on," Mrs. Peters said. "There's a lot, a lot, of good, caring people in this community."

Even before the U.S. bombing of Iraqi military targets began Jan. 16, Mrs. Peters had her first scare. A rented Israeli boat ferrying soldiers back to the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, after a day ashore in Haifa, capsized Dec. 22 in the Mediterranean Sea, drowning 21 sailors.

Her son, William Jeffrey Peters, 28, an engine mechanic on the Saratoga, missed the ill-fated boat by minutes and watched it swamp in rough seas.

"After I found out he was OK, I just walked the floor a few times, then I let it go. . . . The waterworks just started.

"I had gone through as much as I could. My gosh, then I learned of this mishap. It really knocked the wind out of me," she said.

Before the war, Connie and Leon Peters lived a quintessential Eastern Shore life, working days to make a living and spending evenings with friends and community groups like the Ruritans for Leon and the church choir for Connie. Weekends were for each other.

"Sometimes we'd go to movies, or go see friends, or shop around, but we were always together," Mrs. Peters said.

Since they married 30 years ago, the couple had not been apart more than two weeks at a time.

"Whatever we did, we did together," and that has made their sudden separation in midlife "more difficult to cope with than anything else," Mrs. Peters said.

"I get lonely for him. I would see other women with their husbands and I would get the loneliest feeling, like I was excluded from the world," she said.

Mr. Peters had retired from his job as a procurement officer with the Eastern Shore Hospital Center in Cambridge and was setting his own work hours in a job with U.S. Customs in Baltimore when his Salisbury-based National Guard unit, the 200th Military Police, was called to active duty Nov. 15.

Mr. Peters had spent 18 years with the National Guard, responding to numerous state emergencies, including rioting and flooding. At 56, he was four years shy of mandatory retirement and was one of the oldest in his unit.

Mrs. Peters felt that, at his age and with high blood pressure, he might at worst be stationed in the United States or in Germany, out of harm's way.

When he was shipped to Saudi Arabia, it was a shock to her. But Mr. Peters, who enjoys the military, was eager to serve.

"He's always been kind of on the patriotic side. He's always said if something happened, he would want to go," she said.

His duties with the military police unit are to guard prisoners and strategic points, like airstrips, Mrs. Peters said.

Meanwhile, her son Jeff, who has spent eight years in the Navy and has a wife and three young children in Norfolk, Va., heads the USS Saratoga's night crew that checks the condition of aircraft before they take off, she said.

Even though her husband is well behind the front lines in Saudi Arabia (she doesn't know exactly where), and her son is on a carrier, Mrs. Peters worries for their safety.

"As far as I'm concerned, anytime you're in a war, you're vulnerable," she said.

Mrs. Peters has suspended any plans for the future until her family comes home.

"It's not an easy thing. Part of my life is setting over there. You take it day by day and pray they're going to be OK," she said.

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