FORT BRAGG, N.C., AUG. 8 -- They did not know what was happening to the men in their lives. One minute, their spouses were lying next to them, asleep. Then phones jangled in the darkness before midnight Monday, and the men vanished.

So, today, Elizabeth Abbott was vigorously dusting the coffee table in her living room, trying not to dwell on Sgt. Maj. David Abbott. She had been compulsively cleaning all day, she said.

Stephanne Steelman was smoking for the first time in seven months, so worried was she about James, a sergeant. She also had acquired a guest, Brandee Dickson, who had spent the night because she could not bear to be nearly eight months pregnant and alone without Pvt. Johnnie.

Diana Lumpkin had barely slept, instead staring at television news for hours since Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Lumpkin had left. Uppermost in her mind, as in the minds of the others, was one word: chemicals. And there was one question: Would Iraq use chemical weapons against her husband in a desert far away?

"What a helluva way to die," she said.

Across the 148,618 acres of this immense Army installation in southern North Carolina, thousands of wives, sons and daughters grappled today with the very personal reality of the latest crisis in the Middle East.

In most cases, families did not even know for certain whether their husband or father was among those dispatched by President Bush to help protect Saudi Arabia against an Iraqi incursion. Defense Department officials have said only that some units of the 82nd Airborne Division, the principal fighting formation here, were airlifted. But they declined to specify which elements.

They have declined, too, to reveal how many troops were shipped from Fort Bragg, although it was clear today that thousands remained behind, at least for now. About 45,000 soldiers and airmen are here and at nearby Pope Air Force Base, and grocery stores, gasoline stations, pawn shops and malls that hug the bases were replete with red-bereted members of the 82nd.

For wives who suspected that their husbands were among those who have gone or soon will go, nothing spawned as much fear as knowledge that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons previously. At a meeting of many wives Tuesday evening, there were pointed questions: What about the chemical weapons? Are our men protected?

"It's pretty terrifying," Lumpkin, 32, said this morning as she sat in the living room of her home, which, like most on the base, is a modest, single-story brick dwelling. "You can be standing there talking to a buddy, and a mist comes down on you and you're gone."

"I'm terrified for him," she added, referring to Jeff, 35. "But I've been married long enough to know this can happen. He's a soldier. He's been in 16 1/2 years, and this is his moment. . . . You have to know my husband. His mother had a joke that he came out with a camouflaged diaper. He's proud of his work."

Like most wives today, Lumpkin did not dispute Bush's decision. She is Army. Her truck has a bumper sticker: "Army Spouses Are Special."

"We have to do it," she said of the deployment. "If we don't protect {Saudi Arabia}, then we're lost. There are so many things that would be lost to America, all that gasoline. So, yes, we should protect it."

Still, that meant she had to deal with the worst and most obvious question of all, posed by her 10-year-old son, Jeff Jr. "There was alarm," she said. "I could see it in his eyes. He said, 'Mom, is dad going to get shot over there?' "

Liz Abbott had at least heard from David, 36, who had spent the night back home after his initial summons Monday. But she is convinced that he will go to the Middle East because he works at the headquarters of a battalion put on alert. So, after nearly 19 years in the Army, after missing the 82nd's deployments to Grenada and Panama, Abbott might be on the verge of his first action.

"Usually, when I'm worried, I clean house. Today, I'm cleaning house," said Liz Abbott, 38, mother of four, including a son who just entered basic training in Georgia. And being an Army wife for so long, she said, made no difference because she was as worried as the very young wives.

Stephanne Steelman, 22, spent much of the day as a "key caller," designated to call other wives with nuggets of news, to calm them, to help them. It kept her mind off her own worries, she said, although it struck her that perhaps only 20 percent of the wives with whom she spoke really understood where and why their husbands were going.

"This comes with the territory," she said. "I realize that. I'm not going to get down on the country. I think it's great they're going to defend Saudi Arabia. But if this escalates to a war, is my husband going to come home?"

Brandee Dickson is only 17, her husband 19. As she watched a briefing today by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, she seemed confused by names of the places and players.

"Being in the house by yourself, when it's quiet, is what kills," she said, with a catch in her voice, adding that her husband did not want to go.

"My husband told me they {the Iraqis} use chemical weapons. The chemical weapons is what really scares me."