HAMPTON, VA., NOV. 22 -- Jacob Christian just wanted his bologna sandwich on white bread with mustard.

The 2-year-old's parents had hoped this would be their first full holiday season at home with Jacob and his year-old sister, Amy. They thought it would be the start of a long family tradition like their own growing up in Oklahoma.

But it was not to be.

This year, Dad is off in Saudi Arabia with U.S. troops and Mom is left to fend for herself.

"Maybe next year we can try again," sighed Erin Christian.

Here at the Gateway Apartments near the main gate of Langley Air Force Base on Hampton's outskirts, this was a particularly poignant Thanksgiving: a holiday to give thanks that the country is not at war and to pray that it stays that way.

While the attention of many Americans was riveted on the standoff in the Middle East, few places have as much at stake as the Hampton Roads area. More than 30,000 sailors, soldiers and airmen from the region have shipped out as part of Operation Desert Shield. An additional 15,000 will be on the way soon.

And the people of Hampton Roads -- home of Langley, Norfolk Naval Station, Fort Eustis, Little Creek Amphibious Base and other military installations -- have reached out to comfort those without their loved ones with free turkey baskets, discounts on meals and special dinners for those families remaining for the holiday.

Christian, 21, began dating her future husband, Airman First Class Anthony Christian, now 23, at Douglass High School in Oklahoma City when she was in ninth grade.

Yesterday she spent most of the day chasing her two young children as they scampered in the living room cluttered with toys, waiting to take them to a turkey dinner at Langley's Noncommissioned Officers Club.

In a few hours, she had to soothe Amy when she bumped her head, clean up bread and spilled soda and pull both children repeatedly out of the curtains where they were playing.

"I'm going to get mad at you and I'm going to put you in Time Out," warned the weary mother, referring to a family punishment of sitting quiet and alone.

She never expected this. Christian said she feels overwhelmed handling the children by herself.

For a while, she took a part-time nursing job so she could get out of the house some. Now she's preparing to put her belongings in storage, take a 1 1/2-day bus ride and move back in with her parents until Anthony returns.

"You're always a full-time parent, but when you become a single parent overnight -- mother and father -- you feel trapped," she said. "That's not something you think about when you get married -- being a single parent because your husband gets dragged off to war."

She wants life back as it was before Desert Shield. She wants someone to help with the kids. She wants to go to the movies every once in a while. She wants to sit down to a peaceful, home-cooked family dinner.

Most days, Christian said, she's able to handle her current situation. But then there are the other days.

"I had one of those about two weeks ago, a whole weekend," she recalled. "I was just coming unglued. I was like 'Auuuggggh!' " She threw up her hands as she screamed, for effect.

"I know it's not my husband's fault," Christian said after a pause, "but this was the furthest thing from our minds when he joined . . . . We didn't think we'd ever go to war."

Neither did her neighbor, Nelta Jackson.

At 23, the Texas native has been married to Air Force Staff Sgt. Samuel Jackson, 30, for two years, but has spent only about nine months with him. The first year of their marriage he was stationed in Iceland and, like Anthony Christian, he left for Saudi Arabia on Aug. 11.

The Iceland separation was bad enough, she said. But now she's pregnant and expecting her first child Dec. 5.

"It's hard. You get married and you have that other shoulder to lean on," she said. "Now that I'm having a baby, that other shoulder's not there."

Jackson said that when she and her husband first married they talked a lot about about what would happen if there were a war. They always decided to cross that bridge when they came to it. Now, she said, they are at the edge.

"It's just sit-and-wait," she said. "I think a lot about the what-ifs."

Shortly after Samuel Jackson left, his sister, Sharon, 26, quit her job as a nurse and moved here from San Diego shortly to help Nelta Jackson through the separation and her pregnancy.

Together, they try to find distractions, such as making pine cone Christmas wreaths or exploring Hampton. As they waited to go to the NCO dinner today, they watched the Thanksgiving parades on television and tried to spot Samuel in some of the television footage from Saudi Arabia.

"You get your aches and pains and you wish he was here for you and he's not," said Nelta Jackson. "It's really hard when I go to Lamaze class and everybody has their husband and you can only imagine what he'd do if he were there."

Like most couples, they used to argue over petty things: taking out the trash, keeping the kitchen clean. "I'd die for an argument with him right now," she said with a forced laugh.

About 5 a.m. today, her husband called from Saudi Arabia and woke her up to wish her a happy Thanksgiving. Like other soldiers stationed there, he got a free three-minute phone call home today.

They told each other their I-love-yous and their I-miss-yous, but by then, their time was up.

The line went dead, and he was gone.