Gulf war veterans, families find new meaning on Fourth of July Veteran ponders idea of independence WAR IN THE GULF


All of the friends and relatives and reporters had gone from Ernie Law's Northwest Baltimore row house on the day he came home from Saudi Arabia and, finally, it was time to ease into a dream he nurtured in the desert for nearly a half-year: a long hot bath under his own roof.

Eyes closed and his body stretched out in steaming suds, Maj. Law sighed with relief as months of sand accumulated with the 531st Army Reserve Medical Detachment floated away. But he couldn't relax, and along with the bath water, an eerie sense that he was not alone washed over the 53-year-old Army reservist.

BEyes open, Mr. Law found his wife, Julia, and his twin 10-year-old sons Kemar and Omar just standing by the tub, staring at him.

Daddy was home.

"A beautiful family reunion in the bathroom," Mr. Law said.

That was April 19.

Since his welcome home bath, Ernie Law has gained back the 25 pounds he lost overseas as a member of Operation Desert Storm; he has adjusted to a household that ran to a different rhythm in his absence (he said his sons' grace period for avoiding discipline is running out fast); and he has come to see freedom, which the Law family celebrates with the nation today, as he never did before.

"If you go back in history you see that the Fourth of July came about because the 13 colonies wanted independence from Britain, but when I learned about the Declaration of Independence in civics class I never put the meaning to it," said the 53-year-old, now back to work as director of social services at Baltimore City Detention Center, a job he hopes to keep now that the state has taken over operations there.

"And now I have participated in the independence of Kuwait. We were there to help Kuwait become independent of Saddam [Hussein]. I will always relate independence to what we did for them. This will be with me for a long time."

Julia Law, 52, who ran the household with the help of her sister and mother while her husband was away, planned to put a lot into the celebration taking place today in Mr. Law's hometown of Mullens, W.Va.

"I find I'll be cramming a lot of things into the holiday this year, like Christmas and Thanksgiving too," she said. "And Ernie's high school is having a big reunion over the Fourth, a big homecoming celebration."

The America that sent him to war this year is not the same country in which Ernie Law graduated fromhigh school in 1956 in a little coal-mining town in southern West Virginia; a year when his family celebrated the Fourth setting off fireworks at a cook-out featuring homemade ice cream.

"I don't think the pressures of today were with us, the demands of today were not there, the country seemed to be economically sound -- you didn't have [10 people] scrambling for one ditchdigger's job . . . it was more pleasant to live," he said. "Today is an accelerated jet age, you live from one day to the next."

Mr. Law has visited schools, churches, and community groups since coming home from war, dressed in his battle fatigues and patiently answering questions from young people and senior citizens.

"I'm thankful for the gift of coming back home without a scratch," he said.

In this season of Ernie Law's homecoming, he has celebrated his sons' passing into the sixth grade, he has watched them, in this week of Independence, graduate from swimming class, and he knows that such achievement can be easily derailed as Kemar and Omar move into adolescence as young black American males.

Looking at his boys the other day as he sat in an easy chair beneath a welcome home wreath of thin tree limbs and yellow ribbons, Mr. Law said that he would like to ask something of all the people who have thanked him for a job well done in war.

He said that he wants to convince the thousands who turned out for victory parades that some of the American determination and muscle used to destroy Baghdad could be applied to battles at home.

"We have turned away from the wars in the United States, the war on hunger, the war on homelessness and teen-age pregnancy and teen incarcerations, the war on teens dropping out of school, the war on drugs and the killings in the streets," he said. "Something needs to be done about that . . . the war isn't over."

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