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Female soldier's listing as MIA brings war home to neighbors WAR IN THE GULF

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is the not knowing that hurts most.

Where is Army Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy?

Worse yet, how is she?

They are questions no one on Logan Street in Grand Rapids, Mich., wants to ask. They are questions everyone on Logan Street can't help but ask -- of themselves, of each other, and, if they have one, of their god.

"Melissa," says 44-year-old Rainbow Millman, a family friend. "Where are you?"

On Logan Street in her hometown, Specialist Rathbun-Nealy -- the first female American soldier to be listed as missing in action in the Persian Gulf war -- is, simply, Melissa.

The 20-year-old soldier was reported missing Jan. 31 after she and Spc. David Lockett, 23, disappeared near the Kuwaiti border. The Army has said that they got lost and then the truck they were driving got stuck and came under enemy fire.

When a Marine rescue team arrived, the two soldiers were gone.

And that is the last official word on the whereabouts of Melissa Rathbun-Nealy.

*

On her block in Eastown, a tough inner-city neighborhood of Grand Rapids, neighbors have begun to wrap their porches in yellow ribbons and to put lights in their windows -- beacons that they like to think will guide Specialist Rathbun-Nealy home.

"Somewhere in the cosmos, wherever Melissa is, she thinks of this block," said Richard Millman, a writer who lives on Logan Street. "This is home."

Leo and Joan Rathbun, now retired teachers, wanted their only child to grow up in a racially balanced neighborhood, a place where their daughter would learn to honor people of different races, cultures and religious beliefs.

In Eastown, the Rathbuns found the mix they wanted: black and white; poets and political activists; Christian Reformed and Communist. "The neighborhood and what we have here is very much part of Melissa's story," said Mr. Millman. "Leo and Joan weren't just talking liberals; they wanted to walk it, too."

At a block meeting last week, differences among neighbors surfaced -- as they always have, as they always will. Several residents rejected the notion of displaying yellow ribbons because they believe they express support for U.S. intervention in the gulf. One neighbor decided instead to hang a yellow peace sign; another is wrapping her tree in ribbon of a more politically neutral hue. Neighbors have also begun to order POW/MIA bracelets inscribed with the young specialist's name.

"The not knowing is really ugly," said Mr. Millman about the young woman who used to baby-sit his middle child. "We're all praying, hoping. No one wants to think too deeply. We're all devastated. The war has become real personal."

Specialist Rathbun-Nealy, who extended her last name as the result of a short-lived marriage, is an independent thinker, high-spirited, friendly and responsible, according to friends. She sang in the Creston High School choir and earned good grades, though not remarkable ones. She is not classically pretty, neighbors say, but her face and body are alive, always in motion.

Growing up in Eastown also gave the young woman certain street smarts -- something that friends hope will serve and protect her now.

At Creston High, where her father taught social studies, Melissa was friends with inner-city teen-agers who used military enlistment as an avenue to better lives. Her best friend was in the campus ROTC program, and it was she who persuaded Melissa to enlist. The two enlisted together -- as buddies.

Ironically, her friend didn't take to the Army and later was discharged. Specialist Rathbun-Nealy, however, came to feel a sense of commitment to the military.

It was not the lifestyle the Rathbuns, who have been in seclusion since their daughter's disappearance, would have chosen for their only child. But it is one they supported.

So it was that the girl next door left Logan Street.

*

Specialist Rathbun-Nealy is one of 27 U.S. soldiers listed as missing in action in the Persian Gulf.

Last Wednesday, the same day the residents of Logan Street held the block meeting about their missing Melissa, forensics experts identified the remains of two U.S. soldiers who had been listed as missing in action since the Vietnam War.

One of the soldiers was not publicly identified in accordance with his family's wishes. The other, according to the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, was Capt. Verne G. Donnelly of Marysville, Calif. The Navy captain had been listed as missing in action since his plane was shot down over North Vietnam on Sept. 17, 1972.

There are still 2,283 American soldiers who fought in Vietnam who are unaccounted for, according to the league, which is offering support services to families who have a relative missing or held captive in the Persian Gulf.

"It's a very difficult issue to deal with. It's unnerving and something few people can relate to," said Colleen Shine, a 26-year-old marketing consultant from Virginia whose father, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, has been listed as missing in action since she was 8.

"You don't know if a person is alive or dead. Does my mother know inside whether she's a wife or a widow? No. . . . The uncertainty is a tremendous burden," said Ms. Shine. "If I would say anything to Melissa's parents, I would say this: 'No matter what, don't give up hope.' "

In Washington, the director of the Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation said Specialist Rathbun-Nealy would be "uniquely recognized" when the memorial to military servicewomen is constructed.

"We should be proud of Melissa -- all the Melissas," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who heads the foundation, which was created by legislation in 1986.

*

On Jan. 31, an Army captain knocked on the door of Leo and Joan Rathbun's home in Newayo, Mich., a recreational community of 1,400 to which the couple moved two years ago. The captain told the stunned Rathbuns that their daughter, a driver in the 233rd Transportation Company, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, had joined the haunting wartime roster of the missing.

The Rathbuns had heard on the news earlier that night that a female soldier had been declared missing. They dismissed initial apprehensions, reasoning, after all, that their daughter's job -- as they knew it -- was to drive a jeep for an Army officer.

Mr. Rathbun could not speak for two days. His wife, described by friends as a "rock of Gibraltar" to her husband's "Irish volatility," seems to have fared a little better, at least outwardly. Friends have been at their side since the grim news was delivered. The Rev. Ray Bruck, their priest, has prayed with them, and for them.

"Every day we pray for the safety of Melissa," said Father Bruck.

"We pray for them all."

A few days ago, the couple installed a second, private telephone line at their lakeside home. Their other phone line, which rings constantly, has a recording. On it, Mr. Rathbun asks callers to pray for "Melissa and all the soldiers of Operation Desert Storm." He refers calls to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the Rathbuns wait.

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