Officially, there is no go. There are no deployment orders. No war to fight. For the moment, the soldiers in the 443rd Military Police Company are still just inactive reservists, obligated to serve one weekend a month, two weeks a year.
But as the Pentagon prepares for what could be one of the largest National Guard and reserve call-ups since the Persian Gulf War, when 265,000 troops were activated, nerves are fraying in the 443rd. The Army unit, based in Owings Mills, Md., and trained to set up refugee and prisoner-of-war camps, returned home just three months ago after a year of post-Sept. 11 duty at an Army base in Texas. The long tour slowed careers and turned marriages brittle.
Now, the prospect of another deployment -- this time the scuttlebutt is Turkey or northern Iraq -- is roiling morale and discipline. Yesterday, the Department of Defense mobilized an additional 4,700 reserve and National Guard troops, bringing the total to more than 55,000. And the 443rd could be called up for another year -- or longer.
But a few of Capt. Jonathan Bennett's soldiers have told him that if they are called for duty, they are not going this time. And about a dozen soldiers more than normal did not show up Saturday morning when Bennett ordered them to base.
So Bennett is preparing AWOL papers -- just in case.
Although there are many like Spec. Jimmy Arbogast of White Marsh, Md., who are committed to serving no matter the price, he said some of his fellow soldiers are thinking: "We just did our year. Leave us alone."
Those who did crowd into a drab, dark classroom at the Jachman U.S. Army Reserve Center watched a training video informing them that the anthrax vaccination they were about to receive goes to those "deployed to high-threat areas." Those words made the rumors real.
Shortly after the lights came on, one soldier yelled: "I guess that's the go."
And the rest of the troop let out their battle cry: "Hooah!"
The possibility of heading off to war has lingered since the 443rd returned home to a teary, flag-waving ceremony in September. As possibility hardens into probability, they worry about how costly the new call to service will be. Some wonder whether their marriages will survive, or worry about kids with whom they have just gotten reacquainted. Others face putting off school for another year, or falling further behind at work and continuing to lose income.
A few are in plain denial.
"Some of them are burying their head in the sand," said Lt. Shawn Magowan of Arnold. He said that about a third of his 35-member platoon did not show Saturday.
"They don't want to deal with reality," he said. "They're done playing Army."
While the troops rolled up their sleeves to get the anthrax vaccine Saturday, at least one of the soldiers balked. Bennett sat with him, speaking softly about how the vaccine could save his life, how the unit was depending on him. Then he took him out of the room, away from the other soldiers.
When they returned a few minutes later, the soldier rolled up his sleeve and stuck out his arm.
With a 6-month-old baby at home, Arbogast is scared, too. But like many in his unit, he's ready to go.
"There's no way I could stay home and watch it on TV," he said. "I couldn't have my unit go without me."
After receiving her shot, Tanya Donahue, of Dundalk, Md., said she was ready to go: "Fear keeps a strong soldier alive."
But all the talk of war worries Mary Hayes, whose husband is in the 443rd.
The year she spent apart from Michael, a staff sergeant, was so stressful that they separated for a few weeks after he returned to their home at Fort Meade. The children didn't respect his authority, she said. And a part of her didn't want them to.
She had been the one taking the kids to the doctor, getting them to school, helping with homework. Meanwhile, he had been living a bachelor's life in Texas, free of domestic responsibilities. "He had a whole different life in Texas, and I was really angry. My life didn't change that way. I was left behind with the children."
During the time he was gone, she developed a new routine with her children, one that was foreign to her husband. Mekhi, 3, could have a sweet every now and then. Michael Jr., 9, could stay up late on the weekend. But when Michael Sr. came home, he instituted his own discipline. No sweets. No video games after 10 p.m.
"I felt like, 'I've been taking care of them for a year by myself, and you have no right to come in here and change the rules,' " Mary Hayes said.
The television news reports made war in Iraq seem ever more likely. And Michael was behaving as if he were about to be shipped out. He was rushing to finish chores, such as getting the truck repaired, as if he wouldn't be able to do them later. And he made an appointment to take a family portrait, something "he would have never normally done," Mary Hayes said.
Then he told her about the anthrax vaccine.
"That's when it hit me," she said.
The last deployment put them at the brink of divorce. How would they handle another one?
She confronted him: "I need to know if our relationship is strong enough to withstand you leaving again."
"He says it's going to be okay," Mary Hayes said. "And I believe it, because we've worked so hard at getting back together as a family. But I'm afraid there is going to be a glitch, and it's going to fall apart again."
Since Staff Sgt. Jack Medeiros has returned home, his 7-year-old daughter, Rita, gets scared every time he leaves their house in Westminster, Md.
"She thinks I won't come back," he said.
So when he goes to his civilian job at a uniform delivery service, he calls her during the day to reassure her: "Daddy will be home for dinner."
Still, she gets particularly upset when she sees him in his camouflage uniform.
Last week, Medeiros and his wife, Tamara, met with a family counselor for advice on how to break the news that Daddy might be leaving again. On Sunday evening, they gathered their four children together and tried to explain.
"We decided we would come from the approach that the president is the coach, and the coach called the team," Tamara Medeiros said. "And when he does that, you say, 'What position do I play?' "
They thought the children took it well. But later that night, after the kids had been put to bed, Rita came downstairs in her moon-and-stars pajamas and told her dad: "I don't want you to die."
He won't, they assured her. He'll come back, just like he did the last time.
While she comforts her children, Tamara Medeiros tries to stay strong. But her own emotions are barely in check: " 'Devastating' is a good word," she said. "This is going to be horrible."
If her husband is called up, it will be even harder than the last time, she fears, especially if he is stationed overseas, where she won't be able to call everyday like she did when he was in Texas.
Staff Sgt. Regina Lucas is torn over the possible deployment. Part of her doesn't want to go because it "will be extremely hard" on her 9-year-old daughter, Phranci. The last time she was called up, Lucas, a single mother, had to send Phranci to her grandmother's in Mississippi. That meant she had to pull her daughter out of school and enroll her in one down south.
Now, Lucas has warned both schools that she may have to do the same thing.
Still, Lucas, a Gulf War veteran, said that while part of her doesn't want to leave, another part is "pumped" to go. She's a soldier, and this is what she's been trained to do. She only wishes that before she is shipped out again, she gets a little more time at home.
"When we got back, they said we could go again," she said. "But we didn't think it would be so soon."