ROCHESTER MILLS, Pa. -- The dreaded Army messenger came to their homes in neighboring Pennsylvania villages with words Darlene Mayes and Connie Clark still cannot believe: Their daughters were dead.
The fighting may have ceased in the Persian Gulf yesterday, but for families of 28 Army reservists killed in a Scud attack in Saudi Arabia Monday, the war had just begun. Eighty-nine others were injured.
Army reservists Christine L. Mayes, 22, and Beverly Sue Clark, 23, were among those killed. They were attached to the 14th Quartermaster Detachment of Greensburg, Pa., which lost 13 soldiers in the blast that transformed a makeshift military barracks into molten, twisted metal.
In tiny country towns tucked 30 miles apart in the snow-dusted hills of Western Pennsylvania, two families mourned their soldier-daughters yesterday.
Darlene Mayes, a round-faced hairdresser, stood outside her modest home and said she did not believe the war was over -- perhaps because her own battle had just begun.
"She was supposed to be safe," said a bewildered Mrs. Mayes, who has two other daughters, 8-year-old Kimberly and Pamela, 19. Her husband, Franklin "Butch" Mayes, is an unemployed construction worker. "She told us she was back where they were supposed to be safe."
The 69 soldiers in the 14th Quartermaster, a water purification unit, had arrived in Saudi Arabia just last week. Ms. Mayes, one of 12 women in the unit, was a cook for the outfit.
Ms. Mayes, Ms. Clark and Spc. Adrienne L. Mitchell of Moreno Valley, Calif., were the first female soldiers to die in combat in the gulf war. Ms. Mitchell, 20, was temporarily assigned to the unit after its arrival in Saudi Arabia.
Ms. Mayes barely had time to accept her diploma from Marion Center Area High School in 1986 -- where she was a .500 hitter on the softball team -- before she and a cousin, also a young woman, joined the Army.
In high schools in these hills, where coal mining and steel work feed most families, 15 percent of graduating seniors join the military. Ms. Mayes had taken the armed services vocational aptitude test when she was just 15, according to Marion Center Principal Robert Stewart.
Shy and reserved as a child, Ms. Mayes came into her own during a 3-year tour of duty in Germany -- far away from her house in the hollow on Little Mahoning Creek in Rochester Mills.
As best friend Linda Winebark described the transformation yesterday, "Chris left in sweats and T-shirts. She came home in skirts and heels," her reddish hair dyed blond and her ears studded with earrings.
After she got out of the service, Ms. Mayes enrolled in business classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She joined the reserves in October, primarily for the extra money.
"She didn't want to go to Saudi anymore than anyone else, but she understood it was her duty," said David Fairbanks, her 22-year-old fiance.
The couple became engaged Feb. 17, the day Ms. Mayes' unit left its training base at Fort Lee, Va., for the Persian Gulf.
"I gave her a ring, but she said she couldn't take it with her," said the slightly built Mr. Fairbanks, a driller's helper. "I said, 'All right, then, it'll be here when you get back.' "
When he got home from his last visit with Ms. Mayes, Mr. Fairbanks placed the ring next to a photograph of his fiancee on his stereo, where it remained yesterday.
Struggling for the words to describe his feelings for Ms. Mayes, he said, "She was everything that's good."
A neighbor of 15 years, Sandy Pardee, said she was helping organize a tribute to Ms. Mayes from the 60 families of Rochester Mills -- a scholarship fund, perhaps, or a memorial plaque.
"You try to create a rosy, safe atmosphere for your children," said Mrs. Pardee, "but it's not always safe. All morning, I've been thinking of the ifs: What if she hadn't signed up? What if the unit had moved out [to another assignment] a day earlier? What if she'd never left Rochester Mills?"
Next to the Mayes house, covered in parts with tar paper and plywood, is a single tree, 5 feet high, its scrawny bare branches wrapped in yellow ribbons.
"I'm proud of my daughter," said Mrs. Mayes. "She was a soldier."
The horror was in their eyes.
Connie Clark could barely speak, and her coal miner husband, Robert, not at all.
In their kitchen in rural Armagh Wednesday night, hours after the dreaded word arrived, a half-dozen steel-gray folding chairs were lined up on the cold linoleum floor. A woman sat down and sobbed.
A cloud embraced the full moon, which hung in a rich, midnight-blue sky. The Clarks didn't notice.
Their daughter was dead.
Beverly Clark indicated her desire to join the military in a career-planning questionnaire she filled out at Union High School when she was 14.
Her first career choice, according to counselor Judy Conger, was in "personal and protective service."
Ms. Clark, who reclaimed her name after a marriage ended, had been in the reserves for six years. Her enlistment was to have been completed in July.
"When we graduated from high school, it's all she talked about: the Army," said Yvette Minnigh, a former classmate who last saw Ms. Clark at their 5-year high school reunion last fall. "Around here, there's not much to build a future on. It was her way out."
In Armagh yesterday, residents flew flags at half-staff. Many also had flags on their front doors, and photos of their own children who were also serving in the gulf.
A secretary at Season-All Industries in Indiana, Pa., Ms. Clark last spoke to her parents from Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
"Her dad asked if she could see the sand," said Mrs. Clark, who has three other daughters and a son. "She said it was mostly concrete where she was, and that she could see the Patriots [missiles]." A water purification specialist and clerk, Ms. Clark was pulling guard duty the night she called.
The Clarks don't know Mrs. Mayes, but on this day they were kin.
"She always believed that anything was possible," the couple proffered in a handwritten statement about their daughter. "She was our daughter and a soldier."