Even though Suzanne Mauris was seven months pregnant, she understood that her husband, Stephen, had to go to Iraq with his Maryland National Guard unit when it was deployed for 18 months in January.
"It's what he's trained for," she said. "I fully support him in what he's doing."
But since then, Mauris's resolve sometimes has given way to anxiety as Iraqi insurgents have launched sporadic rocket attacks at Camp Cooke, where her husband's unit is assigned, along with thousands of other soldiers.
Nine soldiers with the 39th Brigade Combat Team at the camp, 15 miles north of Baghdad, have been killed in the past two months, according to the National Guard. Mauris and others who have family members there worry about their loved ones walking through the sprawling camp and standing in long lines to call or e-mail home.
"We felt that made them a target," said Jill Reese, a College Park resident whose brother-in-law serves with the 629th Military Intelligence Battalion, which is headquartered in Laurel and draws soldiers from Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District.
Though they are half a world away, Mauris, Reese and other family members have formed a nonprofit group to raise money to help purchase more telecommunications equipment for the unit's 19 soldiers based at Camp Cooke.
"What we wanted to set up for them was more for the families' benefit," said Mauris, who spoke at her Fulton home while she doled out treats to her 23-month-old son, Alex, and Reese held the Maurises' 2-month-old daughter, Emily. "They haven't heard from loved ones as much as they wanted to. It makes it harder for families to function without knowing if their soldiers are safe."
The unit's 18 men and one woman work as analysts for the 39th Brigade Combat Team at Camp Cooke, trying to assess weaknesses that would make coalition forces vulnerable to attack, said Maj. Charles S. Kohler, public affairs officer for the Maryland National Guard.
In the last few months, Camp Cooke has grown from about 2,000 to 10,000 soldiers, according Capt. Kristine Munn, speaking for the National Guard.
Although workers are rushing to install more telecommunications facilities, she said, they have not kept up with the camp's rapid expansion.
"The infrastructure just wasn't there to support that many people," Munn said. "It's just like building a brand-new city."
An April 24 rocket attack at Camp Cooke that killed four soldiers and seriously wounded five others "definitely got us moving," said Mauris, who also volunteers as lead coordinator for the unit's family support group. After the attack, one quick call to a spouse came from a member of the 629th Battalion to report the unit was okay. Nothing else was heard for a week.
"I try not to watch the news all the time," Mauris said. "When you do see it, your heart drops out of your chest. You sit there waiting for the phone to ring or a knock on the door."
The soldiers of the 629th Battalion have talked about trying to obtain their own satellite dish, but that would cost about $21,000, she said.
"We didn't want our soldiers to go into personal debt just to call home," said Mauris, a former social worker for a nonprofit health care organization in Washington.
The new nonprofit organization, Friends of the 629th MI Battalion Inc., has applied for federal status as a charitable organization. If granted, donations to the group would be tax deductible.
Debra Jung, a lawyer with the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said she is not aware of any other military families organizing themselves as a nonprofit group. "That more people are trying to think of ways to help their soldiers -- that doesn't surprise me," she added.
Kohler said the Maryland National Guard supports the initiative by the families but wants to make sure they know the guard has its own nonprofit foundation that may be able to help.
Mauris said the Friends group wants to pursue other goals such as emergency financial assistance for families and scholarships for children if a parent is killed in combat. Already, members have raised a few thousand dollars selling baked goods and teddy bears and are planning pizza fundraisers and a yard sale in the coming weeks.
In the wake of the abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, potential donors occasionally have backed off when they learn that the unit is involved in military intelligence, Mauris said. "Our guys provide information to safeguard American and Iraqi lives," she said. "We have to support our soldiers over there. They have jobs to do."
She added, "There are people left behind who still have to find a way to go on."
To learn more online about Friends of the 629th MI Battalion, visit www.friendsof629.org.