Alone in his tent in Kuwait, Capt. Terrence Buford, 28, an operations officer with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, finishes up a letter to his wife, Vanessa, 26, and daughter Omari, 2, back in Fort Stewart, Ga., as his division readies for war. “As you know, we have got a mission to do, so this might be the last letter you get for a while,” he writes. “I want you to think back to all the fun times we’ve had playing Uno and Yahtzee, holding hands, kissing, going antiquing. Know that I love you. Take care and God bless. Love always, Terr Bear/Daddy.”
As PEOPLE went to press, many of the more than 250,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf were on the move, poised for battle. In northern Kuwait, a mood of bridled tension descended on the men and women of the 3rd I.D. as they broke up the camp that had been their home for 2½ weeks. In a communications tent, dozens lined up three at a time to place what would be their last calls home for a while. When Capt. Richard Downs, 28, reached his mother, Barbara Merritt, 50, in Norfolk, Va., he tried to keep the conversation light:
DOWNS: I got your packages.
MERRITT: Oh good. Everybody at the office chipped in.
DOWNS: Tell them they brought a little bit of happiness to some soldiers halfway around the world.
MERRITT: Will you be one of the first in?
DOWNS: Don’t worry, Mom…. We’re ready. We’ll be all right.
MERRITT: Well, I do worry about you.
DOWNS: Mom? Can you call the rest of the family and tell them I love them?
MERRITT: Yes. (Noise on the line.)
DOWNS: Are you still there?
He hangs up, cursing the connection. “I wish I’d gotten a chance,” Downs says, “to tell her I love her.”
…AND AT HOME
Kasiah Mead may be young, but the 3-year old knows exactly why , her father, Army Cpl. Derrick Mead, is in a desert far across the world. “What she says,” explains her mother, Sara, 26, “is that Daddy’s gone away to put Saddam in time out.”
Back home in Hinesville, Ga., Sara was mediating another dispute as she tried to watch President Bush’s March 17 speech on TV: a struggle between Kasiah and 11-month-old sister Braedyn over a batch of Lego blocks. She did, however, catch Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum of war. “In a way it will be a relief to Derrick and our guys,” she says. “It’s hard to hang on to your focus when it’s on-again, off-again.”
Not to mention your emotions. Married since 1999, Derrick, 24, and Sara have spoken just a few times—including one 23-minute call that cost nearly $90—since he shipped out to Kuwait as a company driver with the 3rd Infantry in late January, his first deployment since joining up two years ago. The last time, in late February, she and the girls all had the flu. “We’re told not to talk about bad things,” she says, “but I was crying and saying I didn’t see how I could get through it all—and there was Derrick saying, ‘I’m just so sorry.’ I didn’t tell him how proud I am of him,” she says. “I wanted to do that.”
Late February was also the last time Beth Mentes, 46, and her two girls, Leanna, 4, and Jackie, 20 months, heard from her husband, Sgt. Thomas Mentes, 33, a cavalry scout with the 3rd Infantry. “He’s not only at the front, he’s ahead of the front. He could be in Iraq right now,” says Beth, who sends care packages of Slim Jims and Altoids and keeps the kids distracted. “You just work hard to keep a good face on everything.”
That’s a tough task for military parents at both ends of the phone. Shanice Williams, 11, a student at Stuart Mesa Elementary School at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, last talked a week ago with her father, Reginald, who shipped out Nov. 16. “He told me to make sure my sister doesn’t burn down the house,” she says. “She’s 4 and she gets into things a lot.” On the morning after Bush’s speech, Stuart Mesa teacher Gail Howard asked her fifth graders how they felt about the war. “I’m sad because my dad is sad,” replied Martin Escalera, 10, one of the handful in class whose father, David, a master sergeant, was not yet deployed. “If he doesn’t go to Iraq, his job will be to knock on people’s doors and tell them that their mom or dad died in the war.”
If it wasn’t for the U.S. Marines, Tony Al-Shammeree might have heard such a knock during the last Gulf War. Born in Iraq, he escaped with his family after they had fought against Hussein in 1991, under the protection of the Marines. Inspired, Tony set his sights on joining up when his family immigrated to the U.S. m 1992, settling in Philadelphia. Today, as the only Iraqi-born soldier in his battalion, the 24-year-old expects to play a vital role, interrogating captured Iraqis and translating intercepted communications.
When he last called from Kuwait, in late February, Al-Shammeree told his brother Mahda, 27, he felt gratified to serve. “Tony feels that the Marines saved us,” says Mahda, “and it is time for him to pay them back.” Unlike most of the 250,000 U.S. troops in the region, Al-Shammeree will find himself on familiar turf, but in his last letter home his sentiments echoed those of many. “I love my job, I love my country,” he wrote. “I hope I don’t disappoint you.”
Pam Lambert and Thomas Fields-Meyer
Kurt Pitzer in Kuwait, Susan Christian Goulding in Camp Pendleton, Robert Calandra in Philadelphia and Gail Cameron Wescott in Hinesville