News of War Hazards Heightens Anxiety for Soldiers' Families

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Families of soldiers in the Army's 4th Infantry Division are closely following television and newspaper reports on the war in Iraq -- the swirling sandstorms, the prisoners of war, the fake Iraqi surrenders that led to deadly clashes.

As thousands of the division's soldiers get ready to ship out to the Persian Gulf, the families say knowing exactly what their loved ones will face has made them more prepared, but also much more worried.

"Before, it was like 'Oh, there's a war going on.' But now, there's casualties and POWs," Elizabeth Hernandez, 37, said Wednesday as she shopped for groceries with her giggling 2-year-old daughter. "It's actually hitting home more. We're realizing it's a real war, unlike Desert Storm."

Hernandez's husband, Heriberto, is a staff sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division, where about 12,500 soldiers are scheduled to begin shipping out to the Persian Gulf sometime this week.

Gov. Rick Perry was expected to attend a send-off ceremony for the soldiers Thursday morning at Fort Hood, the nation's largest military post. Officials have not given exact days for deployment, but a small advance group is expected to leave near the end of the week, with the bulk of the division following over the weekend.

The unit is considered the Army's most lethal and deployable heavy division, with ultramodern equipment all linked by computers. It was supposed to deploy to Turkey in February, but the Turkish government refused to grant access to U.S. troops invading Iraq.

Soldiers and families of the division were forced to wait and watch the war unfold. Last week, they learned that their weaponry and equipment had been rerouted from Turkey to Kuwait -- and that 4th Infantry soldiers would follow close behind.

Many soldiers say news from Iraq has buoyed their desire to fight.

"We kind of feel left out," said Spc. Cliff Crummy, 21, of Brunswick, Ga. "We've got guys over there putting our lives on the line and we're just kind of sitting in the shadows waiting."

But May Clark, whose husband is a sergeant major in the 4th Aviation Brigade -- part of the 4th Infantry -- said she is more worried than she was at the start of the war. She's especially nervous when she hears about false surrenders by Iraqis and possible plans to use chemicals against U.S. troops.

"It's difficult watching the war coverage," said Clark, 44. "Saddam's army is a little more powerful than we thought it was. We don't know what he'll pull out of the hat next."

Still, she's glad her husband will be part of a follow-up force, instead of the initial wave invading Iraq.

"The people who went first, they paved the way," she said. "It's less dangerous now."

Becky Deel, 24, whose husband is a first lieutenant in the division, said television news has been saturated with reports of casualties and the possibility of chemical weapons being used.

Some family members said they were shaken by news that two Apache helicopter pilots stationed at Fort Hood were captured, and that more than a dozen soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso were killed or taken prisoner.

"I try not to think about him being in that situation because it's just upsetting," said Deel, who is helping organize a support group for wives in the division.

Barbara Moore, the 72-year-old grandmother of Spc. Scott Shepard of the 1st Cavalry Division, is hoping the war ends before her grandson is called. He is one of 17,000 troops from the 1st Cavalry still awaiting a deployment date after receiving orders in March.

Moore said her worries increased when she realized the war wasn't going as well as she hoped.

"I didn't expect to have any casualties," she said while shopping at a mall with her daughter and great-granddaughter. "I thought they'd be closer to over."