War hits home hard for these families

Friday, December 18, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

War is more than green fuzzy images on a TV screen of CNN's live night-scope reports from Baghdad.

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For the parents of soldiers, sailors and airmen serving in the Gulf, the latest round with Iraq begins a cruel waiting game, days and nights that are long, slow and worrisome.

“I had to leave the house when they started showing the bombing of Baghdad on television,” Janice Cook told me. “Knowing my son was over there and knowing I couldn't talk with him made it surreal.”

Unable to face the evening news, she left her Wyoming home and went for a three-mile walk in the rain. As she walked, she kept repeating to herself: “He's not in Baghdad. He's in Bahrain. He's not in Baghdad. He's in Bahrain.”

Her son is John Cook, “a 20-year-old lean, mean, green Marine private.” He's stationed in Bahrain, a tiny island emirate in the Persian Gulf.

“That's where the U.N. weapons inspectors went after leaving Iraq,” said John's father, Jack. “We like to think it's a safe place. But there's always the danger of terrorists. So you just never know.”

The unknown makes the Cooks worry. They haven't heard from their son since he called them on Thanksgiving. He told them the troops were on alert and he wouldn't be able to talk with them again until Christmas. There would be no time to write letters or send e-mail.

The Cooks don't know whether he received the Christmas stocking they mailed after stuffing it with his favorite chocolate snacks, M&M's and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. They want him to know his folks are thinking of him on his first Christmas away from home.

“Not having any mail, not knowing where he is or how he is,” Janice Cook said, “means he's constantly on our minds.”

To keep track of her son's part of the world, Janice Cook turns on the TV or radio news every few hours. Then she prays.

That's a familiar pattern for parents of those in the gulf. First they listen. Then they pray.

“Every time you hear the news or see a newspaper, you have to check out what's going on with the war,” said Dick Stehlin of Fairfield. His 22-year-old son, Tony, served two tours of duty on board an aircraft carrier in the Gulf. He spent two Christmases on alert wondering whether war would break out with Saddam Hussein.

“You look and listen for any tidbits you can find about the war,” Dick said. “And you think of where your son is and hope he's OK.”

As for the rest of the news of the day — the Bengals' losing record, traffic jams on Fort Washington Way — the weather forecast, the hot air in Washington — none of that matters.

“After the news,” he said, “you say a little prayer. It doesn't matter where you are, at work, in the car or at home.”

Dick and his wife, Sandy, always said an extra prayer for the parents of service men and women who have yet to be sent to the Gulf.

“We prayed that if Tony had to be there, the government would go in, do it right and finish off Saddam.

“We prayed that we would be the last set of parents that had to go through this worry.”

Jenni McCauley's son just returned from a six-month Middle Eastern cruise aboard a destroyer. All expenses for 23-year-old Ensign Ryan McCauley and his crewmates were paid for by the U.S. Navy.

Jenni kept in touch with her son by e-mail, from the Gulf to her home in Wyoming. She used a more traditional means of communication when she asked God to watch over her son.

Every night, she would pray early in the evening. She picked the same time she used to tuck Ryan into bed when he was a little kid.

Just after 8 p.m., Jenni would bow her head and say the words she once whispered after straightening Ryan's covers and kissing him good night:

“We love you. And we will always be with you in our hearts.”

Now, it is Janice Cook's turn to pray. She has plenty of help.

On Thursday, she came home from running an errand to find 11 friends had called and left messages. Some wanted to take her to lunch. Some wanted her to go for a walk.

All of them wanted to say the mother's prayer. May her child be safe and come home soon.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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