May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

Gaye Jacobson remembers the day last August when her son, Derek, a Navy medic, called to say he was shipping out for Saudi Arabia. “I was immobilized,” she says. “I wallowed in self-pity. I curled up on the sofa in a fetal position for two days.” Then a thought occurred to her: “If this has hit me that badly, how must it have affected other families? There must be others who didn’t know who to call.”

There were Jacobson, 52, quickly discovered that scores of people with a loved one in the Persian Gulf—from parents to spouses to fiancées—needed emotional support. With that, Operation Yellow Ribbon was born. “Patriotism had been missing from our lives ever since Vietnam.” she says. “And, by God, we thought if we could have anything to do about it, we would.”

She began by organizing weekly counseling sessions with family therapists in the San Francisco area. Then she set up headquarters on her 35-foot yacht in San Francisco Bay. But as the prewar buildup got bigger, so did her fledgling organization—in size and purpose. Jacobson gave up her job as a manager for a Silicon Valley defense contractor to work full time on Operation Yellow Ribbon. She persuaded companies to donate everything from Kool-Aid to sunglasses and got the Air Force to deliver the goods free of charge to troops in the gulf. She sparked a national letter writing campaign to soldiers, established an 800 number GIs could use to call the States and helped other volunteers with a 24-hour hotline for relatives at home. In four months her organization grew to 27 chapters with 5,000 members in six states.

Her 18- to 20-hour days became a kind of tonic. Derek, 23, had joined a Marine heavy weapons unit that was sent to the Kuwaiti border. “Operation Yellow Ribbon preserved my sanity,” she says. Still, at home at night, she would cry. Finally her friend Molly Webb, who had a 27-year-old son in the Army, ordered Jacobson to take a day off. “She wasn’t always the Rock of Gibraltar,” Webb says.

The worst part of Desert Storm, Jacobson recalls today, was the week leading up to the U.N.’s Jan. 15 deadline. “We were counting off the days our loved ones had to live,” she recalls. “It was like waiting for a fast-moving train to hit.” As soon as the air battle began, she went into overdrive, helping field more than 2,000 calls a day from anxious relatives. It kept her mind off her son. “I didn’t have time to get upset,” she says.

Until March, Jacobson did not have money either. She drew no pay and went $19,000 in debt. Then the OYR board voted her a $4,000-a-month salary, from funds donated by companies and individuals. Jacobson believes the group was one of the first to use the yellow ribbon to show support for Desert Storm troops. “The yellow ribbon signifies waiting for someone you love to come home,” she says. “I saw it as the one symbol people would look at and understand.” They did indeed. Yellow bows and sashes appeared in windows and doorways across America.

In March, Jacobson flew to Hawaii for an emotional reunion with Derek. “It was the most wonderful sight in the world to see his feet on U.S. soil,” she says. But for others, the waiting continues. “We’re by no means ready to shut our door,” says Jacobson. “Operation Yellow Ribbon will keep going until our Operation Desert Storm soldiers and military personnel are home and accounted for.” And what happens to Jacobson? In April she formed a new organization, the American Awareness Foundation, a group dedicated to “trying to keep the American spirit alive.” She should be happy if it is half as satisfying as Operation Yellow Ribbon. “If it feels this right.” she says, “it has to turn out okay.”

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