January 28, 1991 12:00 PM

This war did not begin by the dawn’s early light but in the ancient darkness of Baghdad. America held its breath as news broke, at 7 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, hours before daybreak in the Middle East, that war was crackling like heat lightning in the skies over Iraq. An hour later came official confirmation from White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater: “The liberation of Kuwait has begun.”

When Allied forces from 28 nations launched the awesome firepower of Operation Desert Storm, what for many Americans had been an almost abstract threat of war suddenly gave way to powerful sounds and images: three CNN reporters broadcasting from their Baghdad hotel room, the first night-lit glimpse of F-15s ready for takeoff, the remembered embrace of a daughter or husband gone off to battle. Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as the reality of the attack surged to Americans everywhere, PEOPLE captured an anxious nation in freeze-frame.

What follows is a portrait of our country on the day we went to war.

As war erupts, recruits ponder their future

They played cards, talked, watched television and endlessly paced the floor—and still they were left with too much time and too many troubled thoughts. “I don’t want to die for my country. I’d rather that some Iraqi die forte country,” said Jeff Shapiro, a fresh-faced 21-year-old who dropped out of the University of New Hampshire last month to enlist in the Navy. He was one of 50 or so recruits from across New England who had assembled at a Boston hotel before being shipped off to basic training. Bombs would be falling some 19 hours later, but as these young people passed their last night as civilians, their thoughts turned to questions: Had they done the right thing?

“I’m scared to die, but you don’t think about that,” says Troy St. Onge, 21, who was Shapiro’s college roommate. “I think once I’ve had training and know what I’m facing, I’ll be less afraid.” For St. Onge, signing up with the Marines meant carrying on a proud family tradition—his father served in Vietnam—and it opened up a bigger, more challenging world than his hometown of Nashua, N.H. Like many young recruits, he enlisted partly to find a career. “There are no jobs, and I can’t afford to stay in college,” he says. “The military is a lot better than what I have here.”

Others, like Marco Silva, a 19-year-old Army reservist from Somerset, Mass., weren’t so sure. When he signed up last year, he never imagined he might be summoned to active duty; then he fell in love, which made the prospect of combat even harder to contemplate. “I have regrets, but if I have to go, I have to go,” he said. He shrugged and fell silent; a moment later, he straightened up. “I’m psyched though. Joining up has changed me. I’m seeing things differently and making plans for the future. It feels good.”

By 5 A.M., with a chilly Boston still shivering in darkness, the recruits wolfed down breakfast and lined up for the buses that would take them to a nearby military processing center—the first step to whatever fate might await them. “You have to think positive,” said Silva. “You have to believe that you are coming home.”

Recalling his MIA father, a loyal son carries on

The afternoon air is chilly as U.S. Air Force Capt. Robert Apodaca pulls his blue Olds Cutlass into Falcon Air Force Base, near Colorado Springs. Apodaca usually arrives eight hours earlier, but on this day, of all days, he has been switched to the 4 P.M.-to-midnight shift. Shortly after he settles down to his satellite operations job in front of two large video monitors, the U.S. begins its attack on Iraq. “Everything tensed,” he recalls. “I could feel the little hairs on the back of my neck.” Starving for news, he rushed out of his windowless office to the nearest phone for confirmation. “We’re in a sealed module,” he explains, “and radio waves can’t travel into the building.”

Though he sits thousands of miles away from the battlefront, Apodaca is at a critical hub. As satellite operations officer for the Navstar Global Positioning System, he monitors 12 satellites that provide round-the-clock, all-weather navigation information for the forces in the Persian Gulf—crucial in desert sands where wind can change the landscape overnight. The state-of-the-art system—used by planes, troops and ships—is an integral part of modern warfare. As he taps out commands on his keyboard, Apodaca can’t help but look at the red MIA bracelet on his right wrist and think of his father, Maj. Victor Joe Apodaca, Jr., the first pilot of Navajo heritage to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

If the satellites that Robert monitors had been operating 23 years ago, his father might have returned from Vietnam. Instead, just after his 30th birthday, the major left an air base at Da Nang for a mission northwest of Dong Hoi, in North Vietnam. He hasn’t been seen since. “He was flying below the clouds so he could bomb,” says Robert. “With these satellites, he could have flown above the clouds.”

Robert was 3 years old when his father was declared MIA. “I don’t remember much about him,” says Robert, whose enormous brown eyes resemble those of the man he knows only from family snapshots and a few tape recordings his father made in Vietnam. Though he and his brother, Victor III, were raised by his mother, Rosalind, and her second husband, Jimmy Cain, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Robert patterned much of his life after his father’s—playing sports, making the honor society and, ultimately, embarking on a military career. He is not the only one in his family who has chosen the Army: His mother’s brother, Robert Mentor Alexander, is a two-star general at the Pentagon, and Victor III, 28, is a mechanical engineer who is also a captain in the Army National Guard. He could be sent to the Middle East at any moment.

Despite the risks facing his brother, Apodaca supports his family’s military commitment. “I grew up with the sense of duty that every American should serve his country,” he says. Yet his father’s absence continues to haunt him. “I still don’t know if he’s dead,” he says. A board member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, Apodaca dwells on the unanswered questions about his dad’s fate.

Nonetheless, he will do his duty—as his father did. Typing more instructions into his keyboard, Apodaca rubs the bracelet that never leaves his wrist. For comfort or luck—or perhaps for both.

A CNN reporter observes the White House calm before the Desert Storm

When he awakes the morning of Jan. 15, Charles Bierbauer feeds his 4-month-old son, Andrew, then cleans the garage at his house in suburban Maryland. Though it is the final morning in the world’s countdown to war, and CNN’s senior White House correspondent will begin the most fateful watch of his career at midday, domestic chores come first. “You’ve got to have some semblance of a life when you’re doing this,” he says. “It helps you.”

Indeed, for the past six months, the gulf crisis has intruded heavily on Bierbauer’s personal life. Sudden press conferences have pulled him from sleep. His wife, Susanne Schafer, a Pentagon reporter for the Associated Press, has returned to her beat only two days before. “You juggle your lives, you juggle your schedule,” Bierbauer says, his blue eyes intense. “It would be a lot easier for us if this ended peacefully. It would be a lot easier for a lot of people.”

But the prospect of peace is rapidly dimming. Bierbauer, 48, senses it the moment he arrives on the White House grounds. “Today was a mood day,” he explains. “This is usually a fairly hectic place. It was calm, uneasily calm.” As if to soothe himself, Bierbauer orders in soup, not his usual salad: “I wanted something hot.”

Even the protesters outside the White House gates, he notices, lack the fervor of ’60s crowds. “It’s almost as if it’s a generation which is just beginning to learn how to protest and chant.”

By the next evening, it is clear their chanting is to no avail. At 6 P.M., standing in the misty rain, Bierbauer—whose CNN broadcasts are those the Iraqi government watches—offers the country an eerily prescient observation: ” ‘What you see is what you get’ could well serve as a warning to Saddam Hussein. President Bush has repeatedly said action is likely to come sooner rather than later,” he tells his viewers. “It is characteristic of George Bush to make a decision and get on with it.”

An hour later, he does, and all the tension of the weeks before are compressed into the tiny booth in the basement of the White House press room that Bierbauer shares with his two producers. Above the constant din of sound bites and phones, he notes, “You get to recognize the rings here, like babies’ cries, you know your own.”

As guards keep a lookout on the White House roof and extra security officers search all those who pass through its gates, Bierbauer realizes that violence, not just thousands of miles away but here, in his headquarters, is a real danger. “When you come in through the gate, you say, ‘Gee, there are more police out here than there usually are. I wonder what’s going on.” Then you realize what they’re searching for. My bag has some notes in it. Somebody else’s could have a bomb.”

Bierbauer is a veteran reporter who in 1973 covered the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war out of Lebanon. His experience has not made him an optimist. “This is not a little bitty thing like Grenada,” he warns. “This has the potential of being far more devastating to the state of the world than Vietnam. Kuwait in and of itself is not the big deal,” he continues, “but the potential that this could spread throughout the Middle East and all that entails in terms of oil, and of this century-old conflict between the Jews and the Arabs…”

Then his voice drops to a monotone. “So far,” he says, “it’s been a fascinating play in geopolitical chicken, but I don’t think we can begin to say what kind of a story this is going to be.”

Some soldiers’ families try vainly to stop the war

Alex Molnar was squeezing the phone, struggling to keep his voice under control. At the other end of the line, on the other side of the world, his son Chris, 22, was waiting to go to war. “How are ya, buddy?” Alex asked. “You got all your gear close at hand?” He stared into space as his mind filled with images of Chris-wobbling on a bike as a child, speeding off on a motorcycle as a teenager, packing up for duty in Saudi Arabia as a Marine corporal. Alex listened quietly for a while, then replied, “I don’t blame you….I’d be worried too, pal….Don’t worry, kiddo, you’ll come back safe….I love you too. Very much.” As he hung up the phone, he raised his hand to his eyes to hide the tears.

Four days after Alex Molnar’s conversation with Chris, America began its assault on Iraq—an attack that Alex had desperately tried to prevent. With an eloquent open letter to President Bush last summer criticizing U.S. involvement in the gulf, Molnar, 44, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, inspired 4,000 relatives of military personnel to join him in a fervent antiwar campaign. “There’s nothing like contemplating the death of your son to make you focus your priorities,” he says.

Even as missiles began raining on Baghdad on Wednesday evening, Molnar was still on Capitol Hill, where he had been pleading for legislative intervention. In his mind, this was not a just or honorable war but a cynical attempt to restore a corrupt Kuwaiti regime and assure the oil flow to the West. “This conflict makes absolutely no sense for this country,” he says. “Bush has aligned himself with the Emir of Kuwait against his own people.”

Molnar was spurred to action when Chris, who joined the Marines in 1988, was ordered to Saudi Arabia in August. Molnar, his two other children, Alex, 26, and Heather, 20, and his wife, Barbara Lindquist, Chris’s stepmother, hurried to Cherry Point Marine station, N.C., to join Chris during his last days stateside. “He was in turmoil, trying to focus on getting ready to go and wanting to comfort us and be comforted by us,” says Molnar. “Nobody knew what to say. And all that while, our President was on the golf course.”

Alex is no pacifist and was perfectly willing for his son, who helps launch bombers, to fight for his nation—just not over Kuwait. As he left Cherry Point, Molnar began drafting his letter to Bush. “Is the American ‘way of life’ that you say my son is risking his life for the continued ‘right’ of Americans to consume 25 to 30 percent of the world’s oil?” he wrote. The day the letter was published, in the New York Times, Alex was overwhelmed by phone calls. Soon his house was swamped with volunteers who came together to form the Military Families Support Network. “I came home one night, and there was this group of Vietnam vets stuffing envelopes,” Molnar recalls. “A guy got up and said, ‘I wish my parents had done this when they sent me to Vietnam.’ ”

Now that the bombs have fallen and millions of people have begun the anxious wait for word from the gulf, Molnar is still aflame. “George Washington must be spinning in his grave,” he says bitterly. Then the harshness gives way for a moment, revealing a loving and desperate father. “Excuse me,” he says, his voice starting to break. “I’m worried about my son.”

Both parents at war, a family anxiously waits

When Operation Desert Storm got underway, 12-year-old Josh Smith was at wrestling practice at the Bill Reed Middle School; his two half sisters, 3-year-old Melissa and 5-month-old Jessica, were at home with their grandparents in Loveland, Colo. Hours later, as the first reports of the attack came over the television in the Beattys’ living room, the family sat by apprehensively, picking at their dinners. All they could hope for was that the start of the war might bring them closer to the end of the crisis and the return of the soldiers they hold closest to their hearts: the children’s father, Army Sgt. First Class David Wilson, and their mother, Sgt. First Class Virginia Wilson.

“Our main responsibility is to these kids,” said their grandfather, Dwight “Skip” Beatty, 60, “but we are praying-praying along with the rest of the world.”

There is snow piled around the Beattys’ redbrick house at the base of the Rockies. Only a few hours before the arrival of war, Skip and Melissa had been out shoveling the walkway. When a visitor asked Melissa where her mommy and daddy were, her enormous blue eyes grew even wider. “They’re at work in the Persian Gulf.” she said solemnly.

Melissa isn’t sure where that is, or exactly what her parents are doing there. All she knows, says her grandfather, is that when she gets hurt while playing, or just tired, she wants them, and they aren’t around. Now, though she cannot realize it. the thunderous start of Operation Desert Storm has only increased the uncertainties in her young life. Melissa’s mother, Virginia, a career Army soldier working in the gulf as a petroleum-lab technician, celebrated her 33rd birthday on Jan. 15, the deadline day for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait. Melissa’s father, David, 37, is serving somewhere else in the gulf as an explosives disposal specialist (the two have not been in contact with each other). Since November, when the Wilsons shipped out separately from their base in Germany, the three children have been staying with their grandparents. Flown by their mother from Stuttgart, Germany, to Loveland, they are now hostages to a conflict they cannot fully understand.

War has turned the Beattys’ lives around too. “We had one week’s official notice before Virginia brought the kids,” says Skip. Suddenly he and his wife. Donna, 56—whom he married 18 years ago and who is David’s mother—were jolted from the ease of retirement into a crash refresher course in the basics of child rearing—changing diapers, shuttling back and forth to wrestling matches, helping put on boots and gloves. The Beattys take the time to talk to Josh about his parents and comfort Melissa when she becomes anxious. But too often events have conspired against them. There has been only one letter from Virginia and one from David, and two phone calls, both on Dec. 30. It should have been a happy day for Melissa, but it wasn’t. “She was at a friend’s house, so she didn’t get a chance to talk to her dad,” Donna says. “It hurt.”

So does the private fear that Skip harbors. Though he supports U.S. policy in the gulf, he cannot help feeling it is somehow unfair for a mother and father both to be sent into a combat zone. “Were the unthinkable to happen,” he says, his voice cracking as he looks down at Jessica, “it would destroy this family.”

A Marine chopper pilot is ready to fight

“We get the call, we get briefed, we scramble.” In the countdown days before the onset of Desert Storm, Maj. Dave Johnson, a 36-year-old Marine Corps chopper pilot, was steering his CH-53D Sea Stallion on a practice mission north over the Saudi desert toward the Kuwaiti border. Thirty other Stallions, the Marines’ workhorse troop transports, roared alongside and aft, trailing wisps of black diesel exhaust. Sixty feet below, for mile after mile, hundreds of tanks and truck convoys, laden with weapons and supplies, snaked along highways and trails. “Our birds are the professional’s choice to get troops where they’ve got to be,” Johnson said proudly. “And in a pinch, if they’re pinned down, we’re their salvation.”

Behind Johnson and his copilot, Capt. Mike Barnes, 33, two gunnery sergeants in the empty cargo bay stood tethered to metal loops, steadying their .50-caliber machine guns out the open side ports. If fired upon, in the combat to come, they would open fire to cover troops poised to scramble out the open rear ramp.

Johnson, a 13-year veteran and the father of two children, ages 11 and 7, belongs to the 463rd Helicopter Squadron of the 1st Marine Brigade, normally based in Kaneohe, Hawaii. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to fly choppers,” he said. “I could have been a jet pilot, but there’s nothing like being close to the troops in my own bird. It’s a blast, like taking a magic carpet ride.” Still, Johnson knew things were going to get ugly. “I’ve never been in combat, and I may feel different the first time I see those big orange golf balls coming at me out of somebody’s machine gun,” he said. “But I’m confident. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

Against a dusty afternoon sky, the choppers gracefully settled on the sand flats like a flock of noisy swans. There was no enemy fire, no troops to charge out of the bay. “When the shooting starts, sure, it’s going to be risky,” said Johnson, throttling down the engine. “But this is what we’ve trained for, over and over. We’re focused; we’re set to win.”

Asking questions at the Vietnam Memorial

Unlike other, more celebratory monuments in the nation’s capital the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a deep, black gash in the earth. This is a place where visitors see double: their own reflections moving amid the names of the dead carved into its polished granite walls. Last week, on the day before bombers screamed into the predawn darkness of Iraq. Americans again gathered there to ponder the way a painful past can mix unsettlingly with the present.

Sarah Gitenstein, 8, out with her family on this wintry night, stared wide-eyed at the memorial’s 58,000 names and showed a precocious understanding. “I don’t want to go to war,” she said. “And I don’t want anybody else to die.”

Some somber tourists photographed the monument; others huddled in the cold; a few cursed their President. “We’ve lost it,” said Phyllis Jefferson, 38, who works at a Baltimore detention center. “It’s my fault. Bush’s fault. Saddam’s fault that we let things get to this point.”

But Ronald Garcia, 31, confined his thoughts to his 19-year-old brother, James, soon to graduate from Marine boot camp in San Diego. “He’s happy, and I’m real proud,” said Garcia softly. “But it’s like, ‘Just be careful with my brother….’ ”

Carpenter Mike Shenuski, 26, had driven from New Jersey to leave a message of his own at the memorial, a piece of notepaper wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag. “Today we are at the threshold of another terrible war,” it said. “I love this country, but there has got to be a better way. We do not need another wall.”

Nearby. Quentin O’Brien, a 30-year-old actor, glanced west toward the faint pink glow of the nation’s monument to Abraham Lincoln. The Vietnam Memorial is ordinarily a place to conjure memories. But on this night, he said, “It’s almost like we’re praying to it.”

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