For the first few weeks after his son was called to active duty in the Persian Gulf, Prince George's County police Lt. Gordon Scott could scarely talk of the war without feeling the hot sting of imminent tears.
Irene Hill, a civilian communications supervisor in the police department, struggled alone with the worry about her son, a Marine combat engineer on patrol miles from the Kuwaiti border. She talked to few people about her pain.
Vicki Rhone, whose husband, police Officer Nelson Rhone, also is a Marine reserve officer in Saudi Arabia, tried to reassure their 5-year-old daughter that her father would come home -- and to believe it herself.
"It's not the sort of thing you call people up and say, 'Hey, my son's in Saudi Arabia,' " said Hill. "It's so hard because in a way you're all alone with it and then, it's such a relief to find out that other people are in the same situation and that people really care."
At least 13 of the 73 police officers who are military reservists have been called to active duty and sent to Saudi Arabia. And an uncounted number of other police and civilian employees of the force -- as in government agencies and businesses throughout the area -- have sons, husbands, daughters and wives serving in the gulf. Eight members of the county fire department and seven correctional officers also have been called to active duty.
Officials say the loss of personnel to the war has not affected police operations -- but could if all the police/reservists are called to duty. For now, the impact is on a personal level, prompting the kind of banding together and outpouring of concern that has become commonplace in recent months.
Last week, more than a dozen family members gathered at a support group sponsored by the Prince George's County police department to discuss their fears and concerns and ways to help one another.
The police department, for its part, has launched public displays of support and offered private expressions of empathy. Officers are wearing flag pins on their uniform shirts and affixing flag decals to the cruisers. The department sponsored a blood drive last week with the American Red Cross. It also has prepared a videotape about the war, complete with the names of department members serving in the gulf, for showing at roll call. Chief David B. Mitchell has written letters and visited families.
"I've been a member of the police department for 20 years and I've always had that 'police family feeling,' " Hill said. "But I've never had them rally around me like they are right now. I can tell you it really helps."
As the family members of police officers, many of those left behind are familiar with the ever-present risks of life involved in working on the streets. And they have grown used to "bucking up," hiding their worry and presenting a tough facade.
Sending a son, daughter or spouse off to war, however, is a different matter, as Rhone notes.
"If something happened to Nelson on the police force, as hurt and broken-hearted as I would be, I would know that he was happy because he loves this job," said Rhone. "Having him sent to Saudi Arabia is a different matter entirely."
The pain of loneliness and fear oftentimes is compounded, several family members said, by the thoughtless remarks from people who talk about "kicking rear end in the desert."
"It hurts your feelings when people say that they know we have to lose some boys to keep from paying $3 a gallon for gasoline. Don't they know that the one that is lost could be my son?" said Scott, whose son Jeffrey was a recruit in the police academy before he joined his Marine reserve unit in Saudi Arabia last month.
Scott, for his part, has found himself thrust into the uncomfortable position of unofficial spokesman for the support group, appearing in the department's video and giving interviews to the news media.
"If there is one thing I want to come out of this, it is that I want other people to feel what we're feeling, because if they do, their feelings about the war will change," Scott said. "I want people to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Let's hold off on this ground war. We don't want people to get hurt.' "