By Ron Arias
February 18, 1991 12:00 PM

Even though round-the-clock war coverage was saturating the nation’s consciousness, this news was electrifying: Army Spec. 4 Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, 20, a vivacious Army driver with the 233rd Transportation Company, had become the first female in the gulf war to be declared missing in action. Melissa had disappeared after she and Spec. David Lockett, 23, lost their way and became stuck in the sand while driving a heavy flatbed truck near the Kuwaiti border. After Baghdad simultaneously claimed to have captured women prisoners of war, the possibility loomed that she had become the first female American soldier to fall into Iraqi hands.

Soon after the Army informed Melissa’s parents—Joan and Leo Rathbun of the rural resort town of Newaygo. Mich.—that their only child was missing, the Rathbuns were visited by Father Ray Bruck, their parish priest. Leo greeted him at the door with a tearful embrace. ” ‘I don’t know what to say to you,’ ” Father Bruck recalls telling him. “That’s all right, we don’t know what to say either.” the distraught Leo replied. Yet Bruck and the two retired schoolteachers spoke for nearly 45 minutes about Melissa.

Talking about Melissa seemed to comfort all those who knew her. For one thing, remembering her strength and resourcefulness made it seem possible that she could survive any ordeal she might face. “She’s got it in her to make it back, our Melissa does,” says Rainbow Millman, a longtime neighbor of the Rathbuns in Grand Rapids, Mich., before they moved 30 miles north to Newaygo (pop. 1,400). “If they don’t sexually abuse her, she’ll get through this okay. I just know it. She was physically strong, a real outdoorsy type, but she has a strong personality too.”

Those who knew Melissa while she was growing up agree about her toughness. At Palmer Elementary School in Grand Rapids, teachers affectionately called her Little Iodine because she reminded them of the feisty comic-strip character. “We didn’t mean it in a bad way,” says Sharon Scott. Melissa’s sixth-grade teacher. “She was such an independent soul, and no matter what kind of scrape she got into, she always managed to come out smelling like a rose.” Adds Betsy Flory, who had Melissa in the first grade: “I’d like to think she wouldn’t talk back to her captors, but I wouldn’t bet on it. She had a lot of spice to her.”

Flory, who was active in the teachers’ union with Leo then a social studies teacher at Creston High School in Grand Rapids, credits Melissa’s parents for her independent streak. “Leo was always a bit of a maverick in his own way too,” she explains. “Ironically, he was very involved in the peace movement during Vietnam.” In addition, Leo was once a brother in a Catholic religious order, and Joan had been a nun. So when Leo announced at school in the spring of 1988 that his daughter was joining the Army, says Gregory Carnevale, Melissa’s lOth-grade English teacher. “He wasn’t thrilled, but he gave her his support. He knew as well as anyone that she wasn’t to be told what to do.”

Acquaintances say that Melissa’s best friend. Latanua Ivy, a member of the school’s ROTC program, talked her into joining the Army after their graduation from Creston High 2½ years ago. “It was just a chance to break the routine, maybe do a little traveling,” says Melissa’s senior adviser, Patrick Reagan. “She came back to visit after she joined and was proud of herself.” She even boasted to a hometown friend that she “did the best push-ups, better than any of the guys.” Melissa, now divorced after a brief marriage to another soldier, was based at Fort Bliss. Texas, before going to the gulf.

Today, flags and yellow ribbons seem to have sprouted everywhere in Melissa’s old Grand Rapids neighborhood and along Newaygo’s main street. Such support for all U.S. troops in the wary one—and for Melissa in particular—are warmly appreciated by Leo and Joan Rathbun. “If only they could just hear something, one way or another,” says Father Bruck. Emily Middleton, Melissa’s seventh-grade teacher at Riverside Middle School, perhaps best sums up the general feeling toward the couple’s daughter. “If anyone has her,” says Middleton, “they’re going to be in for a fight. She’s a fighter, that one. She really is.”

Ron Arias, Benita Alexander in Grand Rapids and Fannie Weinstein in Newaygo