Easter egg dyeing used to be so simple, back when Christina King was growing up in Iowa. Just take a dozen or so hard-boiled eggs and drop them in cups of water and vinegar, colored by fizzy little dye tablets.

Twenty years later, King is a military mom with three cranky children anxious about their father, Kevin, an Army staff sergeant who was deployed to Iraq on Tuesday. So King, 31, has made egg dyeing a key part of her homeland strategy for Easter, the first holiday she'll spend without her husband in 10 years.

"We're trying to keep my kids busy," King said. "If we can run them ragged, they'll sleep at night."

First, she and her two closest friends -- Army Sgt. Lou Ann Reynolds, 39, and Brandy Clemens, 37 -- went to the grocery store and Michael's craft store and stocked up on every type of Easter egg-dying kit they could get their hands on. In a year when consumers are expected to spend on average $102.75 on Easter goods, there were dizzying choices -- kits for speckled eggs, for tie-dyed eggs, for marbleized eggs, for eggs that glow in the dark.

Then the three women and their nine children gathered around King's kitchen table yesterday morning for an egg-dyeing extravaganza.

The mothers boiled five dozen eggs, then put out the dye cups, rabbit-shaped egg dippers, measuring spoons, crayons, markers, bits of feathers and foam, cut-out shapes for whiskers and ears and sheets and sheets of Easter-themed stickers.

"It's such a variety," King marveled at their spread. "It's just not like it used to be."

Mikayla King, 5, had been clingy since her father left, her mother said. But she brightened a bit yesterday morning, unwinding herself from her mother's leg long enough to hold out her hand and ask, "Can I have an egg?"

As the children busily dipped their eggs into the brightly colored cups of dye, Brandy Clemens eyed the group.

"This is so quiet! I am so happy," she sighed.

The three women have formed a close bond in the last year or so. Even though only King's husband is deployed, the war has been a constant presence in their lives. Even before the Iraq conflict, they found the constant togetherness forced upon those living in cramped military quarters to be a joy, not a burden. Now it's a life-saver. They trade off babysitting and often lunch together. In their cul-de-sac of townhomes on Maloney Road at Fort Belvoir, they have tied every tree with a yellow ribbon for the safe return of the 24 soldiers King shipped out with.

"Everyone's a family; you know what I'm saying?" Reynolds said. "We congregate together. It's a communal-type thing. That's the way the military is."

Reynolds, who is on active duty, and Clemens, a homemaker, have also bought big into King's distract-and-craft-them-into-exhaustion strategy for children this Easter week, which coincides with spring break for Fort Belvoir Elementary School. Since Monday, their children have made plaster bugs, painted garden rocks and jewelry boxes and decorated terra-cotta pots with beads and jewels. "Our kids are very creative," Reynolds said.

Yesterday, Philip King, 8, earnestly plunged an egg into yellow dye, then glued on a purple feather and drew on the shell with pink paint and markers.

"I'm making an egg for my dad," he explained. "I'm going to put it in his care package."

"We're going to mail this to him," Christina King said, holding up another egg. She'd written "Kevin" on it in crayon. "Do you know how rotten it will be when he gets it?"

She put her arm around her son's shoulders and hugged. "So he's still here for Easter, huh?" she said.

Kevin King, 31, a combat engineer at the Army's Defense Threat Reduction Agency and a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, had called his wife on her cell phone on Wednesday just as she and the others were leaving the Michael's craft store in Dale City, their arms laden with supplies. He wanted to tell them he'd arrived in Iraq safely.

"He said, 'Hi, honey, I love you. We're in country,' " King recounted. "We talked for a minute and 45 seconds, and he managed to say hi to all four of us." The two married 10 years ago after meeting at an Army base at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. The longest they have ever been apart is 45 days, a thing they still marvel at. Now they could break that record.

After about an hour of controlled chaos, all he eggs were dyed. "Can we have an Easter egg hunt now?" asked Mattie Reynolds, 7.

Despite the fancy kits, the sponges and the special rollers, the eggs looked pretty much like the standard pastel-colored Easter eggs King remembered making from PAAS dye kits back in Storm Lake, Iowa. The speckled ones didn't really speckle. Some other masterpieces had fallen and crunched on the floor.

Everybody's fingers were blue. King's younger son, Justin, 7, looked exhausted and curled up on the sofa under a blanket adorned with stars and stripes.

King carefully lined up the finished eggs in an egg carton -- lavender, pink, green. They were all a little cracked and a little wobbly, but they were okay for now.

Mattie Reynolds, 7, shows off her Easter eggs, as well as her creativity.Mikayla King, 5, gets a helping hand from mom Christina at Fort Belvoir. One special egg is going to her father in Iraq. Dallas Clemens, 10, right, his brother, Kian, 7, second from right, Sgt. Lou Ann Reynolds, her daughter Kaitie, 6, and Mikayla King, 5, left, dye eggs.Mikayla gets ready to color an Easter egg to send to her father, Kevin, who was deployed to Iraq on Tuesday.The children make use of dye, crayons and even feathers for their egg creations, one of which is shown here.