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Family Circle : An Unprecedented Shock to the System

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

“We’re at war, babe.” In that brief but chilling telephone message Wednesday afternoon, Elaine Nelson of Laguna Niguel learned what she has been expecting and dreading for weeks.

The call came from her husband, Army Spec. 4 Fred Nelson, who, along with the rest of the 137th Army Reserve unit now stationed at Ft. Ord, is expected to join his colleagues in the Persian Gulf on Sunday.

“I’m scared,” Elaine Nelson said. “I’m hoping that it (U.S. offensive) comes down hard, dirty and fast. I know that sounds selfish, but I’m really scared.

“It’s the chemicals I’m worried about. I’m trying to hang in there.”

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Fred Nelson, a mortician by profession, is one of a handful of reservists in the unit who will be assigned the grim task of preparing American casualties for burial.

Many of Elaine Nelson’s fears also were being played out Wednesday night in homes throughout Orange County as relatives of those stationed in the Middle East or with orders to be deployed there learned of the military offensive against Iraq.

Kathy Collier, whose son, Darrin, is assigned to a tank unit with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Saudi Arabia, said she learned of the U.S. offensive from a late afternoon news broadcast.

“It was kind of a numb, tingly feeling all over,” Collier said from her Buena Park home, recalling the moment. “All of a sudden, I felt kind of confused.”

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Collier, who heads an Anaheim-based support group for military families, said she immediately called group members and was planning to spend the evening glued to television news broadcasts, surrounded by friends.

Jo Ann Blair’s voice was still shaking as she talked about watching Oprah Winfrey late Wednesday afternoon in her Anaheim home and how bulletins flashed across the screen, announcing the nation’s entry into combat.

“Shock, tears,” said Blair, recounting her feelings. “I’m still very upset about it. I’m scared. I don’t know if my son’s going to be over there, and it’s very scary.”

Her son, William Poston, 18, is scheduled to leave for San Francisco today for deployment with the 109th Army medical detachment out of Los Alamitos, a unit of about 30 men and women.

“It’s like watching an accident happen, and you can’t do anything to stop it,” Blair said.

In Santa Ana, news of war reached the Keeney home in much the same way.

“I’ve been a basket case,” said Valerie Keeney whose son, Daren, is assigned to the 82nd Airborne as a combat medic. “I’m just trying to take care of what I have to do.”

Just the night before, the family had enjoyed yet another showing of a videotape their son had sent them from his duty station in Saudi Arabia. In the video, Daren wandered through his desert camp, an M-16 assault rifle strapped to his back, showing family and friends his home in the sand.

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“My son is going to be fine,” Valerie Keeney said.

Like many relatives of soldiers in the Mideast, Madeline Harville had wanted the war to begin, just to end the stress of waiting.

“But when I heard the final word, it was like a shock to my system,” she said.

Listening to the radio in her car, she began to cry. And when she returned home to the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, where her husband, Master Sgt. Top Harville, was based before his deployment, she shared her tears with five other military wives on her block.

“It was the first time we all got together. . . . We all said a prayer: ‘Please keep our husbands safe. Let them get through this,’ ” she said, her voice still choked with tears.

She said her husband called her from Saudi Arabia two days ago.

“It was so sad,” she said. “He was saying, ‘I love you,’ and the phone was disconnected.”

Judi Burch of Irvine heard the news of war at work and immediately left to pick up her 9-year-old son, Christopher, at school so that she could break the news “before everyone else did.” Unfortunately, she was too late. The youngster heard about it from friends on a school bus.

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Burch’s husband, Dave, is a Marine Corps air traffic controller who was one of the first deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Young Christopher seemed to be reacting well, Burch said, and was doing his homework Wednesday evening.

“He’s my little man,” she said.

Burch said her husband telephoned early Wednesday morning.

“He said, ‘I love you. I’ll call you later,’ ” she said. “I guess in my heart, I figured Saddam would back out at the last minute.”

For Mary Patton, who sells jewelry and cosmetics at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station post exchange, word of the fighting meant that her 31-year-old son might soon see action. Her son serves in the National Guard and was recently told that his unit would probably be called in the event of a war.

“He’s my only son,” Patton said, fighting back tears as she exited the base. “So I’m frightened, but we’re behind them 100%.”

Patton and her colleagues were working in the PX when word of the Baghdad bombing first hit the airwaves.

“We were just more or less stunned,” she said. “All we could do was just look at each other. Some of the ladies started crying. Some of them called home.”

Mike Queen, a Marine Corps staff sergeant who works part time at Sears, Roebuck & Co. at South Coast Plaza, learned of the attack when he arrived at work. And though he is ready to serve his country if sent overseas, Queen’s immediate thoughts were for his brother, an Air Force enlisted man already stationed in the Persian Gulf.

“All he talked about was how boring it was,” Queen said. “I guess that’s not the case any more.”

Times staff writers James M. Gomez, Eric Lichtblau, Maria Newman and Jim Newton contributed to this report.


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