As a 23-year-old Marine in 1971, Stuart Willcuts served on a reconnaissance team in central Vietnam, telling assault troops where to find Viet Cong soldiers. His tour ended on Thanksgiving Day when a mortar round obliterated his kneecap.
But Willcuts, the son of Quaker missionaries, didn't go home. He stayed on for four years to help manage a 100-bed children's hospital in Danang and a high school for the Montagnard tribes in the highlands.
"I just didn't want to be a destroyer, I wanted to be a builder," said Willcuts, now 54. "It saved my sanity."
Today -- 30 years, 100 countries and more than a dozen war zones later -- Willcuts is working at the Warrenton headquarters of AirServ International and the group's offices abroad, coordinating a mission he hopes won't be necessary. If the United States wages war against Iraq, he will lead a team of bush pilots ferrying relief workers, food and medicine to the Persian Gulf region to help the millions of expected Iraqi refugees.
Among the workers on one of the flights will be Willcuts's wife, Tammie, 32, a nutrition specialist for Save the Children, one of the world's largest non-governmental organizations.
They met in Azerbaijan in 1998, distributing lentils, sugar, flour and cooking oil for World Vision to families left homeless by the war with Armenia. He proposed in 1999 at a Kosovar refugee camp in Albania.
War is what they hate, war is what they do.
"It's definitely not common in international work to work with your spouse, especially when you're shooting across the world. We get to run into each other in disasters. It's rare and it's wonderful," Tammie Willcuts said. "When you work seven days a week, 18 hours a day, you know the person real well. We may be in sad places, but we see ourselves as part of the solution, and you see results."
About 300 humanitarian workers from around the world already have established themselves along Iraq's borders with Kuwait and Jordan in anticipation of war, according to InterAction, a Washington-based alliance of more than 160 non-governmental organizations. Thousands more would arrive once a war is over and the U.S. government declares Iraq safe to enter, InterAction spokesman Sid Balman Jr. said.
With a fleet of 15 single- and double-engine airplanes, AirServ is one of the world's two airline services exclusively for refugee workers, and it will be the only one operating in the aftermath of an Iraqi war, according to its chief of pilots, Kurt Neuenschwander.
The $10 million nonprofit group, led by a board of directors that includes World Bank and FedEx executives, is based near the Willcuts's Fauquier County home -- and within striking distance of donors in Washington's network of humanitarian and government agencies.
In the group's 19-year history, none of the airline's small planes has crashed, its crew coping with sandstorms, rugged airstrips and bullets but none of the chemical or biological weapons that may be used in this conflict, said Neuenschwander, 40, a Fauquier pilot who got his prop-plane education spraying gypsy moth insecticide over the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia.
Tammie Willcuts, who plans to leave Friday for Kuwait with five 45-gallon crates full of sleeping bags, shortwave radios and portable showers, said the planes will be crucial when she and other relief workers need to help massive groups of refugees wandering in distant, hard-to-reach areas.
Her job with Save the Children is to help family members find each other. She would also conduct health surveys among stranded Iraqi women and children while distributing medicine, rice, lentils, flour, pots and stoves.
Tammie, whose mother managed nursing homes in South Dakota and whose father served in Iran with the U.S. Air Force, said she has always known what she wanted from life. But after two years in the Peace Corps, seven as a relief worker and one volunteering for her local Red Cross chapter, she said she's good at knowing what other people want.
"The idea is to empower families," she said on a recent day in her District office, between browsing the BBC Web site for war news and fielding a cell phone call from her boss, already in Kuwait. "It's respectful. We want them to feel the control over their lives that they lost in displacement."
The Willcuts say their biggest concern will be making sure no one views them as aligned with any government. Otherwise, Tammie said, "it can be risky."
To keep tabs on each other, the two will communicate via international cell phones. They'll deal with the bills when they get back.