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They are suited up for battle and ready to heed the call of duty—mothers and wives bidding farewell to their families, with no guarantees of safe return. The scene has been played out time and again in the month since Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and it represents a turning point in American history. Today, women make up 11 percent of the nation's 2.1 million active-duty military personnel—a fourfold increase since 1973—and they account for an estimated 11,000 of the 100,000 U.S. troops to be deployed in the Persian Gulf. "Historically it's been extremely hard for women to watch their men go off to war," says Betty Dooley, executive director of the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's no easier for husbands to watch their wives and the mothers of their children go to war."

In Saudi Arabia they will have to contend with a harsh climate and harsh attitudes about women in the military (page 50). Though women are barred from engaging in direct combat, in Grenada and Panama they worked in virtually every noncombatant role—as pilots, military police and weapons specialists. The armed forces grant virtually no exemptions from service for women who happen to have children. Single mothers, or parents who are both on active duty, are required to sign legal documents designating a guardian in case they are deployed or killed. Among the military women now headed for the Middle East are many who never expected to be summoned to war. On the following pages are the stories of some of the women now confronting the challenges, and the sacrifices, of their call to arms.

A nurse leaves with a welter of emotions

Five-year-old Nicholas Vernoski clung to his mother's Navy uniform, sobbing. "Mommy, don't go!" he cried, burying his wet face in her starched khaki slacks. His sister, Katie, 9 years old and deaf, wept silently beside him, unable to hear the band playing "Anchors Aweigh" for the 400 men and women waiting outside Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital to be shipped to the Persian Gulf. Even 12-year-old Josh, though determined to maintain a public show of bravery, struggled to hold back his tears. Comdr. Barbara Vernoski gathered her children close, shooting an anguished glance over their heads at Ken, once her college sweetheart, now her husband of 15 years. Then she heaved a 66-pound duffel bag over her shoulder and set out for a war zone 12,000 miles across the ocean. Through the window of the bus that would take her to nearby Andrews Air Force Base, she sent her last message to her family in sign language: "I love you."

For the Vernoskis, Aug. 21 marked the end of a torturous week of waiting. Only days earlier it had seemed that Barbara, 39, a nurse and career Navy officer, would not be sent to the Middle East. "After all, we weren't mobilized for Panama," reasoned Vernoski, who is head nurse of coronary care at Bethesda. But as the possibility of war loomed larger, it became clear that a hospital ship would be sent to the Persian Gulf area, and that she might be on it. "I listened to the news and saw more and more troops going, and I had this sinking feeling," she says. On Aug. 16, she learned at a hospital briefing that she had only days to get ready for duty aboard the USNS Comfort, a floating military hospital. She called Ken, 39, a military analyst. "I'm going," she told him.

It was a scene that Barbara hardly envisioned when she signed on with the Navy's nurse training program 17 years ago in order to get a college scholarship. "At the time, the Vietnam War was going on. And I wanted to go," she says. "But I never imagined that I would be sent off to war at this stage in my life, with three kids and a husband at home. And with everything that's happened in the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc, who would have thought it would happen? The world seemed to be moving toward peace." But though her initial feeling at being deployed was one of dismay, she soon discovered a sense of anticipation as well. "I felt fearful of the unknown, worried about my family and yet excited about finally testing my skills," she says. Vernoski's process of self-discovery revealed to Ken a side of his wife that he had not seen before. "In the past few weeks I've come to realize that the same motivation that drives a pilot drives Barbara," he says. "She has been training for this for nearly 17 years. It's a personal test."

At home in Rockville, Md., the Vernoskis are, as Ken puts it, "kind of numb now that Barbara is gone." Ken, who calls himself "a survival cook," is confident of his ability to manage the household and has offers of help from his parents as well as Barbara's mother, a retired school bus driver, and father, a retired policeman from Rochester, N.Y. Earlier, Barbara couldn't help wondering how the children would cope with her absence. "I think they're going to miss the softness of my approach," she said. "The older ones seemed to understand, but the youngest just knows Mom is going to be gone for a long time."

Before leaving, she gave the children presents to help them stave off loneliness: for Katie, a ring; for Josh, a statue of a little boy with a candle; for Nicholas, a car from her cherished miniature train set. While his wife wasn't looking, Ken took his watch and stuffed it in her duffel—something to remember him by.

"As a younger person, you have a sense of immortality, and you're more eager to go [to war]," Barbara said just minutes before she boarded the bus for Andrews. "Having grown up a little, am very much in tune with my mortality. My family means so much to me. That's where I am in life."

In Saudi Arabia, a major thinks of home

It had been only 16 days since Air Force Maj. Jane Fisher was summoned to duty in Saudi Arabia, but for her 3-year-old daughter, Mary Jean, the separation had already been interminable. And in her little girl's way, she was struggling to cope. On Sunday morning, wracked with an undefined pain, she walked into her father's room and threw up on his bed. "I want to call up Mommy and tell her I'm not feeling good," she said, turning to him in tears. "I've got a headache in my stomach."

There was little consolation that Maj. Henry Fisher could offer Mary Jean and her 9-year-old brother, Jayson, even though he and his wife have spent much of their lives preparing for war. For the past six months, the couple has been stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia—Jane as maintenance supervisor for the 72 F-15s from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing and Henry as an F-16 pilot and air defense-unit inspector. "The most important thing I can do for the kids," he says, "is to let them know that Mom's coming home eventually and that everything is going to be all right." But Henry, who will probably not be dispatched to the Gulf, has his private worries. "Am I scared about what's happening? Sure I am," he says. "I realize she is in danger. But I have faith that she will be able to protect herself."

Now sharing a room in an F-15 bunker with two other women at a base somewhere in Saudi Arabia, Jane, 34, seems capable of doing just that. An intense, disciplined woman ("I've worked fighters all my life," she says), she married Henry in 1978, shortly before she graduated from Ithaca College in New York and he received an engineering degree from Cornell University; both took ROTC at college and signed up with the Air Force at graduation. During tours of duty in Texas, South Carolina and Nevada, Jane gained a reputation as one of the Air Force's best maintenance officers. In 1987 she was sent to South Korea on a nine-month mission; Henry visited her and Mary Jean was conceived there. On the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, she was being honored in Washington with the Air Force's Gen. Lew Allen Award for her skill at preparing war planes for flight.

But nothing in her experience could ease the pain of saying goodbye to her family and the uncertainty of not knowing when she might return. "It was tough," she said before leaving. "With Henry, it was 'Just remember to pay this bill,' and 'I can handle it, we can do this, carry on.' But all I could say to Mary Jean is that Mommy's going on a big airplane and is going to be gone a while. And Jayson, who remembers the time I left before, knew from television and newspapers that something was not good. He asked me, 'Mommy, what if you die?' I said, 'Well, I die.' I had to laugh. It was kind of funny. I just hope they can understand that I have to do this," she said quietly, "and I don't know how to express it." She begins, very softly but unashamedly, to cry.

Despite the risks, a pilot yearns for combat

The duffel bag is packed in the corner of her office at Grissom Air Force Base in Peru, Ind., and these days Lt. Col. Kelly Hamilton-Barlow keeps her television tuned to the news from the Middle East. As the most senior of the Air Force's 315 active women pilots and chief of scheduling and support for the largest refueling wing of the Strategic Air Command, Hamilton-Barlow, 40, more than expects the call to duty for Operation Desert Shield; her heart is set on it. "I've trained 17 years to do this," she says. "It's not that people love to go into conflict, but it is rewarding to have your training pay off."

She knows precisely what she is asking for; during the 1989 invasion of Panama, Hamilton-Barlow scheduled the mammoth KC-135 Stratotankers that refuel long-range bombers and fighter planes in midair. "We are a prime target because if you eliminate the tankers, you eliminate all the other multipliers," she says. "And we can be fired at, but we can't fire back."

Her passion for aviation makes it easier for Hamilton-Barlow to take on such risks. The daughter of an Air Force officer, she took up flying at his urging in 1969 after United Airlines turned her down for a flight attendant's job. In 1973 she joined the Air Force in Oakland, Calif., to pursue an engineering career. Three years later the service opened pilot training to women, and she volunteered. She got her wings in 1978 and has been flying the jumbo Stratotankers ever since.

Kelly's career, however, has exacted a heavy toll on her personal life. Lengthy separations during assignments overseas contributed to her 1985 divorce from Air Force maintenance officer Linn Hamilton. Her subsequent marriage to a Denver stockbroker ended when she was assigned to Grissom two years ago. She remains close to her 22-year-old stepson, Jeff Hamilton, a student at Ohio University, and is confident that he can deal with the strain of having a parent go off to war. Besides, Kelly is a woman with a mission. "I get paid to do what I love to do," she says. "But I'm determined that before I leave, all aircraft, including fighter jets, which are the last male bastion, will be open to all qualified people. I'm committed to paving the way for women."

A grandmother prepares for the worst

When Marian Sides decided she wanted to join the Air Force Reserve, she knew she could never make such a move without the approval of her four children. So in 1978 she called them together—Brenda, Jeff, David and Kimberly, then ages 10 to 16—and asked their permission. Sides, a divorced single mother, explained that as a nurse on a medical air crew, she would be working in a sort of "hospital in the sky." She warned that she would be called away from the family's Chicago home several times a month for training exercises. The kids greeted the proposal enthusiastically. They gave little thought to the possibility of war or even envisioned that, 12 years later, their mother might end up in the middle of one, assigned to transport the wounded.

Last month, however, the Air Force asked Maj. Marian Sides, now a 50-year-old grandmother, to put her personal affairs in order and get ready for active duty. When Sides telephoned her son David to deliver the news, he was moved to tears. "When we talked about re-evaluating the will, I was really shaken," says David, 25. "I knew it was a reality." Sides's daughter Brenda, 28, was equally distraught: "I said to her, 'Mother, why do you have to go? But then I realized that this is what she's been looking forward to." Brenda's 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, drew a picture of Grandma standing near a huge military plane in which the windows were covered with curtains so that "the bad people couldn't look in." She scrawled I LOVE YOU GRANDMA across the top.

Earlier this summer, Sides, a Ph.D. who teaches nursing at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, spent two weeks in military training exercises in the 110-degree heat of the California desert. Though she may soon be risking her life in an even more inhospitable environment, she has not had a moment's regret about joining the reserves. "I'm a patriot—I was born on Memorial Day—and I love a challenge," she says. "I'm ready to go."

A marine waits—and frets about her son

The waiting is beginning to gel to Melanie Hoskins. Last month her commanding officer at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina gave her squadron the news: Get ready to ship out. For Hoskins, 28, a Marine corporal, the threat of war in the Middle East could not have come at a worse time. A couple of weeks earlier she and her husband, Scott, 28, an analyst for a defense company, had separated after eight years of marriage. Now, with a long and unexpected trip in her future, Hoskins frets about leaving her 4-year-old son, Kyle, and finds time weighing heavier by the day. "I just want to go and get it over with," she says glumly.

A native of Farmerville, La., Hoskins graduated from high school, then sensed herself drifting. "After two years as a cashier at a grocery store, the military started sounding real good," she says. "I felt I was just piddling around, getting nowhere." But when she signed up, her father, a pipefitter, was bewildered. "He saw the Marines as a real macho thing," she says. "He thought, 'Why in the world would my daughter want to do that Mostly, his daughter says now, for the sense of accomplishment and purpose, which she found at a Marine avionics school in Millington, Tenn. There she met Scott, another student; they married in 1982. "The one thing I worried about was that we would be sent to different bases," she recalls. "I hadn't even thought about going off to war or being separated from a child—or even having a child."

As a weapons systems technician, Hoskins has to make sure that highly sophisticated aircraft armaments are working properly. The assignment can be dangerous and is unusual for a woman. And though she doesn't relish the idea of combat, Hoskins is stung that all of the women in her squadron, known as the Bengals, have so far remained stateside. "I felt left out watching the guys leave," she says. "It's not fair. The women have trained hard, so why shouldn't we all leave together as equals?"

If her orders do come through, Hoskins will gently explain her departure to Kyle, who will stay at his father's new home just down the street. She is not looking forward to the talk. "I'm holding off," she says. "I figure, why drag him through that before I have to?" Thinking about the task that may lie before her, she sums up her feelings in one terse sentence: "Let's just say I want to get there, do what I have to do, and come home."

"Mom is there fighting the bad guys"

Like many of the women dispatched to Saudi Arabia, Linda Stone arrived worrying about the children she left behind. But Stone, 35, a master sergeant with the Air Force 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, had extra reason for concern. Her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. John Stone, 38, was also under orders to mobilize. Stepping onto Saudi soil only days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Linda kept thinking of her three sons alone in the world. "I was really quite apprehensive," she says from her desert post. "If something happened to both of us, the kids would be orphans." Even as Linda was acclimating herself to the stifling heat, John dropped the kids off with his sister in Baltimore.

Fortunately, a last-minute bureaucratic twist intervened. "The airlift command ran out of planes," explains John. After spending nearly three weeks with their aunt, twins Jeremy and Jeffrey, 7, and their brother, Jonathan, 6, once again have the run of the family's home near Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. "They delayed transporting me, and then it was decided they didn't need me. If things escalate, I might still have to go. But now I'm here."

Given the distance separating them, the Stones must now attend to their individual concerns. Linda's primary hope is that she won't have to practice her military specialty: As a casualty reporting officer, her job is to inform headquarters of deaths and injuries. Meanwhile, John works at explaining Linda's absence to the kids. "They are too young to understand what it's about," he says. "I explained that Mom is over there fighting the bad guys, but they don't grasp the danger she is in. They made up some letters saying, 'Mommy, we love you' and sent them off. I imagine fairly soon they will say, 'Daddy, when is Mommy coming home?' "

Linda wonders, too. "It's hard to think you might not see them again," she says of her children. "I just hope I get home. And take them to Disney World in April." She laughs, then adds, "We were going on vacation then."

A pilot puts her cherished family life on hold

Just hours after flying her second mission to Saudi Arabia, Joy Johnson is sitting at a child's plastic picnic table in her front yard, reflecting on one of life's ironies. "I left Eastern Airlines specifically so I would have more time to spend at home with my kids," says the former commercial pilot. "I absolutely love being a mom. I love being at home, doing all the frazzled housewife stuff. I love to sew, and I really love to do needlework." But since she volunteered to go on Aug. 7, Johnson, a captain in the Air Force Reserve, has been spending most of her time in the cockpit of a gigantic C-141 Starlifter, transporting troops and cargo to the Middle East. "I've heard this is the most concentrated, heaviest airlift in military history." she remarks breezily as she dashes about her little pink house in Charleston, S.C., apologizing for the mess ("I'm in the middle of unpacking, don't even look at the bed") and offering a breathless account of the weather in Saudi Arabia ("I have never ever experienced heat like that, it's like a sauna").

Until 1986, both Joy and her husband, Ed, a pilot for USAir, had jobs with commercial airlines and spent a few days a month flying with the reserve. Then their daughter Jessica, now 4, was born, and "something had to give," says Joy. So Ed quit the Reserve and Joy stayed on.

Life was serene—except on occasion. Last year, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Johnsons' house on an island off Charleston, and Joy, nine months pregnant with her second child, was forced to move in with her parents in Hilton Head, S.C. A few days later, she had to call a doctor she had never met and say "Hi, you don't know me. but I just went into labor—" And. naturally, Joy's summons to Saudi Arabia sent the family into a minor tailspin. "I didn't even find out about it until after she'd left, when I called home and found a babysitter there." says Ed, who was in the air at the time. He had to explain to Jessica why Mommy had gone. "We had a long talk," he says, "about the bad man who's taken some other people's country away and how Mommy's helping them."

Joy has been flying since she was 15, and her duty so far has seemed fairly routine. Aside from her fear that the Iraqis might use chemical weapons, her main source of anxiety is the separation from loved ones. She was surprised to find that the men in her crew felt that pain just as sharply. "At least three men the first week had tears well up in their eyes when they talked about saying goodbye to their families," she says. "That was a revelation."

During Joy's absences, Ed has taken up the role of Mr. Mom, struggling as best he can to provide something more than peanut-butter-and-jelly dinners for Jessica and Diana, 11 months. Each time Joy leaves he assures them that their mother is in no danger and that she'll be back, a thought which cheers him as well. "I know where Joy is most of the time," he says. "Every time I start thinking, 'Woe is me,' I think of all the other spouses who have no idea where their wives or husbands are."