After days of waiting, the start didn't arrive as they expected. There was no "shock and awe," no barrage of bombs to announce to the Maryland families of Iraq-bound soldiers that their loved ones were indeed at war.
But the start came nonetheless. Late last night, with dawn breaking over Baghdad, the Maryland families of soldiers and sailors stationed on the edge of Iraq learned that the first cruise missile had been fired. The wait was over. Their sons, daughters, wives and husbands were headed to battle.
"We're frozen to the TV," said Michael Gardner Sr. of Hunt Valley, whose son, Michael Gardner II, 33, is a Marine reservist in the Bravo Company of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. "It's good news and scary news that the opening salvos have been fired."
The families knew the start could come any time after 8 p.m., President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq. But for a while it appeared the night might pass quietly; there was a full moon over the desert, not ideal for a nighttime attack.
Then came the reports of air raid sirens in Baghdad, followed by confirmation of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and Bush's 10:15 p.m. statement to the nation.
"Didn't come the way we expected, did it?" asked Tricia Lettich of Scaggsville, whose son, Kevin, 20, is an air traffic controller on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean. Lettich figured that when 8 p.m. came and went, the war wouldn't start until today.
"This is just so surprising that they did it at dawn. That might just be part of the shock," she said as she prepared a care package for Kevin that included Orville Redenbacher popcorn, Slim Jims and Kool-Aid - his favorites. The television blared news in the background.
Hours before the bombing begin, Lettich said she received e-mail from Kevin yesterday morning in which he sounded "really upbeat." He had been frustrated with the uncertainty of the wait leading to war.
For herself, Lettich said: "It's a relief. It's a relief. Get this show on the road."
Gathered around their televisions, the families listened as the president directed much of his address straight at their sons and daughters, and to them, the families of the forces.
"The peace of a troubled people ... now depends on you," Bush told the troops. "That trust is well placed."
A vigil by the phone
Among those watching was Tracy Wigglesworth. Ever since her husband, Spc. Michael Wigglesworth Jr., left their home in Crisfield two weeks ago, she has tucked her two children in for the night, watched the news and waited for the phone to ring.
As they heard the first reports of bombs falling in Baghdad, Wigglesworth and her father, Eugene Olah, who came to offer moral support, took comfort in the fact that her husband's Maryland National Guard unit, the 1229th Transportation Company, is waiting at Fort Lee, Va. He has been able to call home almost every night that he has been at the base outside Richmond.
It has been a frustrating week for the deeply religious Wigglesworth. There has been a revival down the street at the Church of God every night, but she has remained at home.
"I'd really rather be at church praying, but I don't want to take a chance of missing a call," said Wigglesworth, who quit her job as a legal secretary a few weeks before her husband was called to active duty.
"This time, especially tonight, I didn't want to miss any of the news and hear if it's finally starting," Wigglesworth said.
Praying for peace
Early in the evening, when it was still unclear when the war would begin, Michael Gardner's mother, Martha, attended a Mass on healing and peace at the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley to pray for her son.
She listened as the Rev. Jeffrey S. Dauses told parishioners, "We pray for peace in our troubled world. We pray for our president, for our men and women of the armed services, that they may be protected and for the innocents of Iraq we pray."
Then Gardner asked her fellow parishioners, who include the family members of other Iraq-bound soldiers, to pray "for my friend who is battling cancer for the third time and for my son who is a Marine in the 1st Expeditionary Force."
A few hours later, the news of the war's start arrived on her TV. Soon after, the calls came from her three other children and her son's girlfriend.
"Oh my goodness," Gardner said. "I wanted to make it through a night before it began."
Sun staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this article.