The two girls stood, their eyes wide, in a large building in Southeast Washington, surrounded by soldiers wearing camouflage-green uniforms and big, black lace-up boots. The solders were closing the lids on boxes and pushing racks of rifles out to waiting trucks.

"Daddy, are those M-16s?" Alessandra Tompkins, 13, asked her father. Yes, he replied.

Alessandra and her 11-year-old sister, Christian, were keeping an eye out for one busy soldier in particular, one they know by another name: Mommy.

Christian and Ale{acute}, as she's called at home, were in Building No. 351 at Anacostia Naval Air Station one day last month to say goodbye to their mother, Second Lieutenant Lartisha Allen, of the D.C. Army National Guard. Their mom is scheduled to be away from them for a year, to be part of a possible war against Iraq.

"When she told us she would have to go, I cried," Christian said on the morning her mom had to leave.

"You did? You must have done that after I left the room!" her mother said, her eyes glistening, as she stroked Christian's long, wavy hair.

Saying Goodbye

All around the country, kids have been saying good-bye to military mothers and fathers, as the U.S. government prepares for a possible war by sending equipment and people to ships and bases around the world.

On the morning Allen left, there was going to be a ceremony for the soldiers and their families, with a brass band and speeches. Then the 148 members of the 104th Maintenance Company were heading to Fort Dix in New Jersey.

"We train on M-16s, the use of gas masks, we get our shots and our paperwork and then we just see what happens," Allen explained.

Her company (whose job is to fix military vehicles) might stay in the United States, but could be sent overseas.

Ale{acute} said she knew, when she heard the talk of war, that her mom would have to go away, "but I didn't think it would happen so fast." Her mom's notice came in December, and by February they had left their apartment in Charles County.

The girls have never really seen their mom as a soldier, practicing with her M-16. But now, there was Mommy, in uniform, giving orders to her platoon of 25, mostly men.

Christian said she didn't understand why America might attack Iraq: "I don't know what they're fighting for -- I don't get what this war is all about."

Christian was carrying a copy of "Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul" and a flowery journal -- her mom gave each girl a journal for the year they'll be apart. Christian is the kind of kid who is super-careful about homework, but doesn't bother much about clothing. She wore an Army sweatshirt and a puffy, blue down coat.

Ale{acute}, meanwhile, seems more matter-of-fact about the war that's taking her mom away.

"All the U.S. wants is for Saddam to disarm -- for him to stop killing people," she said of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Yet, she doesn't think a war is necessary. "He's not really a threat to us. If all they did was sit down and talk, they could stop this."

So, are the girls worried their mother could be hurt? Ale{acute} answers for both of them: "No. She told us she won't be going out of the country."

Ale{acute} seems to have figured out her feelings on life's bigger issues, and concentrates more on the little ones, like whether her shoes match her outfit. On this day, she wore glittery blush on her cheeks and a pink valentine scarf.

Since they got word that their mom would be going away, life has changed for both girls in a big way. They have moved into their dad's house, in Washington. He and their mom are not married and have been living separately. The girls have spent weekends and holidays with him in the past, but they have never been with him full time.

A New Commanding Officer

Christopher Tompkins is upbeat, but strict. He's an active-duty Army officer at Fort Meade. So, what's it like, being with Major Dad?

"No TV now," Ale{acute} said, grinning. "It supposedly poisons our minds."

"Now, our lunch is a sandwich, drinks and an apple," Christian said. "An apple!"

"Definitely, no Lunchables," Ale{acute} said, rolling her eyes.

The girls say they're getting used to being in a new household, with three step-siblings and their stepmother. Another change is that they're in new schools. Christian is in sixth grade at Shepherd Elementary and Ale{acute} is in eighth grade at Alice Deal Junior High.

The biggest change, though, will be missing all the things they used to do with their mom.

"We act silly a lot. Like, in the morning, getting ready for school -- she just kids around with us," Ale{acute} said.

This got Christian thinking. "What about combing my hair?" she asked her mother.

"I usually would comb it for her in the morning," her mom explained. "You're going to have to do it yourself, I guess, sweetie."

The girls and their mom will stay in touch with e-mails and phone calls. The girls also plan to write in their journals and to read the words their mom wrote inside: " . . . Always remember I love you and I will be back as soon as I can. Be a good girl for mommy. Mind your father and grandmother. Help them understand that it is hard being away from Mommy. I promise I will be back on 13 February, 2004. Start counting down 365 days . . . "

After the ceremony, the girls gobbled down some Cheetos. When their mom found them, she hugged them both at once, for a long time, crying and crying.

Ale{acute} laughed: "She said to us 'stay strong,' that she's going to miss us, and that we have Cheeto-breath!"

-- Fern Shen

KidsPost will check in on Christian and Ale{acute} from time to time to see how they are adjusting to life without their mom.

Lartisha Allen hugs daughters Alessandra, center, and Christian before being deployed for possible war effort.