They knew it could happen, but prayed that it wouldn't.
So it was not a gay affair yesterday at the D.C. National Guard Armory when wives, husbands, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers of members of the guard's 547th Truck Company sat in a huge hall and were briefed on what to expect from life after today, when their loved ones go off for active military duty, possibly to see combat. Last week, President Bush placed the 547th on active duty in Operation Desert Shield, which could mean deployment in the Persian Gulf.
The families were told about military pay, benefits, legal matters -- including wills -- and assistance they could count on in case of emergency.
But sitting on top of zero hour, many relatives were concerned more about life's longings, not its logistics.
"I don't care whatever they give me," said Maria, 21, a soldier's wife, her eyes reddened from crying. "All I want is him."
William, 55, a soldier's father, said he called guard officials last week to ask why his only son was called for duty. Only sons are not exempt, he was told. "It hurt," the father said.
Pleadingly, he continued: "I don't want my son going over there. My son's got a birthday coming up soon and he'll be over there . . . . Seems like they should let him spend his last night with his wife. He just got married, and the thing was he didn't have no time with her. I wish I could do something to stop it. I wish I could."
Nicole, 9, the daughter of the only son, said she is confused. "Why can't they stay here? Why are they going?"
Linda, 41, a female soldier's mother, marched up to a reporter and demanded, half in jest, "I'm the mother! I want to know why they're taking the women. Lot of people tell me women's lib. I don't believe in women's lib."
And then there was a soldier's grandmother, deep in thought, seemingly serene, except for the tissue she clutched in her hand and the voice that caught in her throat when she was asked how she was doing and whispered, barely, "Not good."
For security reasons, guard officials would not allow guard members and their families to give their full names.
There is no official word on whether the 547th will be deployed, and if so, when and where in the Gulf. The unit was placed on active duty alert last month.
Today, the 120 members of the 547th will leave the District in a military convoy of at least 50 vehicles headed for Fort Pickett, Va., an active Army installation. There, they will get last-minute training, preparation and equipment. Then, final orders.
As a truck company, the 547th is responsible for hauling supplies and equipment. They are trained for both peaceful and combat situations.
But there are unknown variables. The poisonous snakes, for instance, that have bitten several soldiers in Saudi Arabia. And the accidents in which some soldiers have died.
There is much mystery and anxiety surrounding the mission, and in all of this a soldier nicknamed "Joe College" sees a book.
Yesterday, he sat in the back row of the Armory assemblage and wrote in his journal. He started it on Wednesday, the day the call-up order was issued. The first line reads: "By order of the President . . . . "
"In fact, that's what I'm going to name the book: 'The 547th, By Order of the President,' " said the soldier, who in civilian life is an Amtrak train attendant.
He has written about "how once I got the call I was bouncing off the walls. I just got in my Jeep and drove around for three hours just to think, to just get a grip and say this is real. You've got to accept it."
His parents did not attend the briefing. His departure is difficult for them, he said. "I'm 26. I'm the youngest kid. I still live at home, and they just didn't want to accept it."
The call-up of the 547th is the first time since the Korean War that a D.C. Army National Guard unit has been deployed for active duty, said Maj. Phyllis Barnes, a D.C. Guard spokeswoman. In that war, it was the 715th Truck Company, which participated in eight campaigns and received the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation for its service.
"Today the 547th, the current truck company, is ready to make its own history," says a D.C. National Guard press release.
For the families, it is not so clear-cut.
"I wish they'd take them all from the jail and send them and give them something to do," said Gloria, 55, mother of a soldier, Darren, whom she calls "my baby son."
She laughed, but tears ran down her cheeks. "I've been doing this all day," she said, dabbing her face.
Gloria has given her son a mother's orders:
"I told him to be careful. Take his Bible and read it every day. I've heard that so many over there have been killed in negligence -- maybe that's the wrong word -- but I told him to be careful. And he said something about snakes and I don't understand why snakes are in the desert, but I told him to be careful."
She dabbed her eyes again.