Some couldn't sleep or eat. Others chain-smoked. Many sought solace at church or with friends.

Among all the Americans who were waiting to see whether Tuesday midnight would bring war, the wait was hardest for the millions of Americans with relatives among the U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf.

"This is so hard right now, listening hour by hour, waiting for something to happen," said Rita Henry, a Sterling resident whose son Eric is an Army helicopter mechanic in Saudi Arabia. "After today, you don't know anymore that they'll all come home safely."

In the hours before the deadline, many military family members jammed support group hot lines, organized emergency meetings to comfort one another and tried to make one last call to their sons, daughters, husbands or wives in the Persian Gulf.

"I don't go to sleep now until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then I lay in bed for a few hours before I can fall asleep," said Melissa Gald, a high school senior who married Frank Gald, a Navy aircraft mechanic, 20 days before he was shipped out in December. "I've lost all hope for peace."

AT&T spokesman Michael D. Miller said that since Thursday, the day after the Geneva talks failed, the volume of calls from the United States to the Middle East has more than doubled. MCI spokesman David Thompson also reported a dramatic rise in the number of calls to the Persian Gulf region in the last few days.

At many Washington military installations, special meetings for families of soldiers and prayer services were held last night. In Norfolk, where more than 40,000 Marines, sailors and airmen have been dispatched to the gulf, hundreds of relatives packed churches, including the London Bridge Baptist Church in Virginia Beach.

"Just in the last week or so, it's beginning to take its toll," said the Rev. Tommy Taylor, the church pastor. "This is real. There's going to be war. There are going to be casualties, and it could be my son. It's been very sobering."

Across the country, a small but growing number of military families are protesting President Bush's hardline posture with Iraq. They have lobbied Congress, sponsored radio advertisements and marched outside the White House, saying they feel so strongly because they have the most to lose.

But many military families stand behind Bush, believing it's best for the country and troop morale. Many are proud, if scared, that their loved ones are fighting Saddam Hussein.

Last night in Norfolk, when 50 anti-war protesters gathered near City Hall, many passers-by shouted their disagreement.

"Most of the families are giving their quiet support," said Navy Lt. Patricia Anderson, a health care administrator at Bethesda Naval Hospital. "They can't stand up and cheer for what's going on. They're not as visible as the protesters."

Anderson, whose fiance and five close friends are in the Persian Gulf, said she tries to free her mind of what would happen if Marine Lt. Col. A.B. Diggs didn't come home for their scheduled wedding.

"I try to establish a routine to get over the tenseness, the anxiety," Anderson said. "On Monday nights, I do my nails. On Tuesday, I iron my uniform shirts . . . I've done my share of crying. But what's the use of crying yourself to sleep? All you end up with is puffy eyes."

Like many families, Anderson got a cherished call yesterday. "He said the men were doing okay, that they were ready and have trained hard," she said.

Joyce Siegel, a community relations official for Montgomery County whose son is in the Middle East, said she planned to stand in front of the White House last night. "Now, there is nothing else to do," Siegel said.

The countdown to the deadline has upset Lynn Strickland of Virginia Beach so much that she hasn't eaten in three days. Her 4-year-old son, Andrew, sat by the door each evening for a week waiting for his father, Lt. Joe Strickland, to come home. Andrew had such bad nightmares in recent days that his mother took him to a doctor.

"It's all been play war and pretending up until now," Strickland said. "I thought this whole thing would be cleaned up. I was positive . . . . I never dreamed it would come to this."