Son returns, but daughter remains stationed in gulf WAR IN THE GULF


Lorraine Combs' son returned early from the Persian Gulf -- alive and luckier than most. But the Millersville mother's joy was tempered yesterday by the knowledge -- and pride -- that her daughter is still half a world away, serving in the desert war.

An Army wife and mother for 20 years, Mrs. Combs, a violinist in the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, said she is used to waiting but that time spent longing for a loved one's return never gets any easier.

Her son, Air Force Lt. Lawrence P. Speer, 25, was back in the United States after a five-month assignment in the Middle East with an aircraft tanker crew responsible for in-flight refueling of warplanes. Mrs. Combs was uncertain how long it would be before her daughter, Spec. 4 Catherine M. Speer, an Army helicopter mechanic, is home.

"A military family can deal with a loved one going on maneuvers or training for periods of time, but you're really not much more prepared for war than people who are losing their children for the first time to a dangerous situation," she said.

"You've got to have an upbeat attitude," Mrs. Combs said.

To keep up her son's spirits, Mrs. Combs said, she sent him long letters about home, books about flying and word puzzles from a weekly National Public Radio broadcast.

Two weeks ago, an interview with Mrs. Combs was aired on NPR's Sunday morning program after she had written to the program about her children on duty in the Gulf.

And last week, while Lieutenant Speer was visiting with his mother in Millersville, the station called and he was interviewed on the air about his experiences piloting a jumbo-jet tanker the night the war began.

"I was on the very first airplane that took off in my unit," the lieutenant said last night, noting that he had been given 10 to 12 hours' notice that the real thing was about to happen. "We were excited about it. We all said it's about time. That's the truth. Our fangs had been hanging out since September."

Lieutenant Speer said he was not close to the real action, but occasionally talked with others who were at the "pointy end of the sword" -- among them an Italian pilot whose plane was shot down by Iraqi gunfire shortly after mid-flight refueling on a bombing run.

He said he noticed that the Italian pilot did not return, and two days later saw him among the prisoners of war in photos released by Iraq.

Lieutenant Speer said his thoughts both then and now are for his sister and the nearly half-million other U.S. troops whose lives are on the line amid preparations for a possible ground war with Iraq.

While in the Gulf, the lieutenant said, he briefly talked with his sister by telephone and observed that she -- like most soldiers -- seemed a little stressed-out but ready for war.

"Morale is high, although there is no doubt that everybody wants to come home," Lieutenant Speer said. "We've been out there for so long and practiced for the war that the real excitement is being able, finally, to just do your job."

"If this war goes on and on and on, I may go back," Lieutenant Speer said. "But it isn't going to be any longer than a three- or four-month campaign with all the troops we have over there," he said.

The lieutenant was able to return as part of a rotation of tanker crew members based in Oklahoma. A 1987 Air Force Academy graduate, he is scheduled for promotion in May to the rank of captain.

Lieutenant Speer visited both his mother's home and that of his father, Robert Speer, in Baltimore's Mount Washington community during a stopover en route to Oklahoma.

He found both homes adorned with yellow ribbons and flags.

Robert Speer said yesterday that his children's religious faith and belief in America help him cope with their absence. "They're both baptized and they have reconciled themselves to the matter of life and death, so that they can perform their mission and return home," he said.

Quoting a passage from the Book of Isaiah, Mr. Speer, a university philosophy teacher, said he prays for the day when swords will turned be into plowshares.

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