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The troops left behind

Even as debate rages about the wisdom and morality of war, a circle of women with husbands and children in the nation's armed forces quietly is forming at Northside Baptist Church.

As they talked about their lives and loved ones last week, the second-floor classroom in which they met rang with the laughter of shared experiences. But, says a knowing Bonnie Norris, the group's leader, tears are sure to follow.

Mrs. Norris, an effervescent woman who is a former obstetrics nurse, speaks from experience. When the United States was last in Iraq, her husband, Michael, a local dentist and a longtime Army reservist, was called to serve in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. She ran his dental office, held a part-time job and raised their three youngest children during his yearlong absence. With a precise memory, she recalls that her brother-in-law was killed in Vietnam on Oct. 6, 1966. Her former husband served on a nuclear submarine for three months at a time and was in the Navy for 10 years. Now, her son, Paul, a staff sergeant with the Air Force Reserve, is about to be deployed overseas.

"This is not a new thing for me. I know the stresses," she said to the women sitting around her, among them one who recently suffered a miscarriage, a mother of two toddlers and an infant, and another with a 9-month-old.

"Ask for help," she told them.

"You're going to get frustrated when your kids are not behaving. You're going to have to have patience with people who don't know your situation. I think had it not been for the fact that our marriage is based solidly on Jesus Christ, I think I could easily have walked away. I was so frustrated and so angry and just felt like the whole world had been dumped on me."

It is her hope, Mrs. Norris said, that the wives and mothers who have embarked on the open-ended journey of Bible study and prayer that began last Wednesday will find comfort in God and companionship with each other.

"Our ultimate end," she said, "is to have them come together as Christians, to understand that they have a powerful weapon in prayer."

Julie Choat, 26, is praying for her husband, Stanley, a second lieutenant in the Army. Three weeks ago, her husband, whom she met when they were attending the same church, was sent to Kuwait.

"I just kind of give it to the Lord and I know that he is in control of our every circumstance. He gives me the peace to make it through each day," she said.

Last Wednesday she wore a T-shirt with the words, "Army wife the toughest job in the Army." Around her neck was a shiny replica of an identification tag. It bore the words, "I belong to a soldier."

"I found it the day before Stan left and he thought it was really neat that I wore it," said Mrs. Choat, who suffered a miscarriage a week before Christmas.

A Northside Christian School graduate, she recently moved back from Augusta, Ga., to stay with her parents, David and Cindy Bintz, in Seminole. Joining the circle of women who will meet to pray for loved ones in the military seemed natural.

"We could relate to each other," she said of the women who keep in touch with their loved ones by coded e-mail and phone calls.

The group, which meets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N, is open to women of all denominations. Child care is provided. Besides spiritual matters, the sessions will address secular concerns, from how to use military health insurance to what to expect when an absent spouse returns.

"You all are going to find that you have a big adjustment getting to know who these people are again," Mrs. Norris said during last Wednesday's introductory session.

Responded one woman who had brought a Bible for couples to the gathering, "When my husband comes back, the worse thing I think is relinquishing the checkbook."

That sent everyone into gales of laughter.

As the discussion became more serious, Mrs. Norris explained that they would each need a Bible and that would read and discuss the paperback Becoming a Woman of Prayer, by Cynthia Heald. The hourlong meetings also will include time for socializing and prayer.

"I ask you to keep your prayers confined to your immediate family, for your loved one," she said. "We're not going to be praying for Joe down the street here."

Uppermost in Darlene Edmunds' mind are her son-in-law, James Benson, 26, who is in the Army airborne in Germany, and his wife, her daughter Joanna, 24, and their 3{-year- old daughter, Kaitlyn. She often turns to Psalm 23 for comfort, Mrs. Edmunds said, adding that she hopes to help the young mothers in the group.

"I'm thinking that I will be able to help in some way, maybe babysitting or visiting them," she said.

Like the group's leader, Loretta Wilcoxen has long been part of a military family. Her father served in the Navy during World War II. Her brother also served in the Navy, and her husband, Robert Lee II, retired from the Army after 20 years. A few days ago, her son, Robert Lee III, 23, a Marine, left for Okinawa.

Growing tension between the United States and North Korea is making her "a little more nervous" than usual about her son's current tour of duty, Mrs. Wilcoxen said.

"You love your husband too and worry, but when it's your child, it's different. I can't protect him," she said.

But her faith gives her comfort, Mrs. Wilcoxen said. "We are all believers and know the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior," she said of her family.

"It gives me peace knowing that my son is a Christian and does know his Lord and savior. ... If anything does happen, I know it's in God's plan."

In a few weeks, Linda Trombetti's oldest daughter, Jodi, 21, could be even closer to the simmering tensions in North Korea. She expects to be posted to South Korea.

A graduate of St. Petersburg High School, Jodi Trombetti is stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

"While she was there during peacetime, it was as though she was gone to college. Missouri is far away, but I always knew that I could get there in a day, if I needed to, but this is a little different," her mother said.

"It was kind of scary when she said that she was mailing us her will."

Mrs. Trombetti is the only Roman Catholic in the Bible study group, but that is of little consequence, she said.

"I feel that we are worshiping the same God, and when we pray to the father through the son, it's all the same," she said.

Mrs. Norris, who heard from her son over the weekend, said she cried when he told her that he soon will be deployed.

Asked how long her little group of military wives and mothers will continue to seek solace in prayer and in each other, she answered, "However long it takes."

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