ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND -- As the long-anticipated ground war in the Persian Gulf began to unfold, hundreds of military family members gathered yesterday at the Aberdeen Post Chapel to pray for the lives and safe return of American soldiers -- a tradition that dates back to the founding of this sprawling military complex in World War I.
While many of the more than 250 people who attended services yesterday already carried the burden of months of separation from their mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, the onset of the ground campaign provided another distinct possibility -- death to their loved ones.
In his sermon, Army Chaplain Col. Edward Mouchette prayed for the safety of U.S. forces, but then forcefully reminded his Protestant congregation that in the same way many of their loved ones were on the front lines in Saudi Arabia, they, too, were "soldiers of Christ, carrying the cross to the front line."
He told them that the adversity they all faced was part of the price of receiving "the blessings of freedom" and that sacrificing even their lives was part of the obligation and duty to follow Christ.
"We must go forth," Colonel Mouchette exhorted, his deep voice filling the chapel. "We must give our all. We must be willing to take the cross and follow Christ."
His sermon was intended to strengthen the spiritual and emotional resolve of his congregants, many of them the wives, children, parents and friends of the more than 3,000 reservists, civilian contractors and logistics personnel deployed from the proving ground as part of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
On the left side of the altar, a long banner with red and white stripes hung from the wall, with the names of more than 240 members of the armed forces from the base written on white stars pinned on the banner's blue field.
Julie Roberts tried to call upon that resolve yesterday as she thought about her 22-year-old son, William Roberts Jr., an
infantryman on the front lines in Saudi Arabia.
Briefly, she was overcome with the irony and familiarity of her situation.
Ten years ago, Mrs. Roberts, her son and her daughter lived in Kuwait for 1 1/2 years while her husband, Col. William Roberts, worked with the Kuwaiti army.
They were evacuated at the start of the Iran-Iraq War.
Yesterday, she choked back tears when she thought of her son returning as part of the U.S.-led multinational ground forces attempting to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
"We didn't hope for things to be this way," said Mrs. Roberts, whose father and husband both served in Vietnam.
Her son "lived there [Kuwait]. He didn't know why a peaceful nation had to be overrun. It makes you sick. War is not in the framework, it's not in the framework of good. Nothing good comes from war."
"He always wanted to go back to Kuwait," said Colonel Roberts, an assistant commandant at the base. "We loved the Kuwaitis. They treated our family really well. We worked and were very happy.
"The circumstances of his return are not the best, but he's going back. He understands the Kuwaitis as people."
Colonel Roberts hoped that early reports of mass Iraqi surrenders were true, which could spell a quick end to the ground war and the safe return of his son.
"I was a company commander in Vietnam," he said.
"Seeing war, it's very different. They are times that really try men's souls, to say the least."