The Middle East crisis has slapped a cold hand across the August doldrums of Washington, waking the city into a frenzy of late-night duty, canceled vacations, emergency meetings and rushed shipments.
The crisis management team is working round-the-clock at the Pentagon, which hasn't seen this much commotion since the Vietnam War.
Washington area defense contractors and suppliers, who only a month ago were facing sharp cutbacks, are working on millions of dollars in emergency contracts related to the Middle East, from battlefield computers to a nerve gas antidote.
Another Washington specialty, think-tank experts and consultants, is so much in demand by reporters seeking information on Iraq and the Persian Gulf that many specialists have no time to do research.
As ships and men mobilize from military bases throughout the country, Washington has geared up for the threat of war in its unique way, with blitzes of decision-making, information-gathering and contracting.
On the second floor of the E-Ring in the Pentagon, the flurry of activity at the public information center begins before dawn and ends long after dusk. The room is flooded with calls, from family and friends of dispatched sailors and soldiers, the media and others interested in the latest update.
"People who never come down the corridor are coming in and asking, 'What's the latest?' " said Glenn E. Flood, a Pentagon spokesman. "In the cafeteria the conversation has turned from sports and 'Twin Peaks,' to the Persian Gulf and 'What if?' "
While few military installations in the Washington region have felt a strong effect yet, family services centers on each base are poised to help with everything from quickie wills to care for children of single service members sent overseas. Support groups, including one for husbands, have formed for spouses of Bethesda Naval Medical Center personnel heading for the Middle East.
In the worst of times, there is always someone who comes out on the plus side, and in the Washington area the beneficiaries are defense contractors, who have received millions of dollars in emergency contracts in connection with the Middle East crisis, according to defense industry representatives.
Three Virginia companies are working to support troops, said Gary Engelbretson, president of the Contract Services Association. In those firms, 500 people are transporting food, clothing and equipment to the Middle East; 300 people are maintaining vehicles, aircraft and other equipment; and 200 are maintenance manager advisers and trainers.
A Herndon company, C3 Inc., is supplying troops with battle-rugged microcomputers, and McLean's BDM Corp. is providing logistical support for the Royal Saudi Air Force, a spokesman said. A Bethesda company is finishing a $2 million rush order for a substance to counteract the effect of nerve gas.
"The lights are on very late here," said Napoleon Monroe, vice president of Survival Technology Inc., of Bethesda. The Department of Defense has ordered an immediate shipment of AtroPen auto-injectors, an antidote for nerve gas that is injected into the thigh muscle in the hopes of preventing loss of vision, breath, muscle control and death. Survival Technology manufactures the antidote at its plant in St. Louis.
"We've made these for so long and they have always been in storage," said James H. Miller, the company's president. "If, God forbid, they drop gas on our guys, maybe we'll save some lives."
And there are the experts, staple of the news story, particularly with administration officials being close-mouthed or coy.
"The institute has been besieged by phone calls from the press," said Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at 18th and L streets NW. "It got to the point where people were ringing up to talk to the summer interns . . . . It meant we had to give up on the research work just to deal with interviews."
While referring to the process as "rent-a-quote" for journalists wanting to add credibility to their stories, Indyk welcomes the attention and the opportunity to enter the public policy debate. Usually, the institute has no programs in August, but this month it has held two media breakfasts to try to deal efficiently with all the interest.
Paula Simmons, public affairs director at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, reported that it too has been inundated with calls. Its main military expert fielded more than 50 calls last week, while its director of Mideastern studies, Fouad Ajami, has become a consultant to CBS. "I haven't talked to Fouad for two weeks, and I have been desperately trying to reach him," Simmons said
Military personnel at installations throughout the region, plus nearly 100,000 reservists and National Guard members, are alert to the possibility of being mobilized, though few units have been directly affected so far.
The biggest impact has been at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where hundreds of officers and enlisted personnel left early last week on a hospital ship heading to the Middle East. By the end of the mobilization there, half of Bethesda's military staff -- 1,100 doctors, nurses and support staff -- will have gone. Volunteers are filling in, but all elective surgery has been canceled.
At Andrews Air Force Base, no full units have been called out, but the family support center there is anticipating possible deployments with briefing sessions for families, one to be held Wednesday.
"I think we will have a great increase" in people needing services, said Jeannette Ruffing, director of the center. The mobilization "is just beginning to take effect."
If called, service members and their spouses could need help in a hurry with a broad range of personal issues: writing wills, finding care for children of single parents, or psychological counseling. Some who are called may have to leave a second job, and their spouses may need financial assistance or help finding work, Ruffing said.
Military reservists and National Guard units in the area are ready to be among those called when President Bush signs an order to activate as many as 200,000 troops across the country. The most likely units from this area would be at Fort Belvoir, though no decision has been made, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Even before full units are being called, some reserve officers have been brought in early to do their annual two-week training to help fill gaps, a Pentagon spokesman said. "It's like a military temp," he said. Some have volunteered to come in early, happy to be in the middle of all the excitement.
"I've been in the reserves for 20 years and have never been called up in an emergency," said Mark Rosenkur, a spokesman for the Electronic Industries Association and a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, who volunteered last week for additional training at Andrews. "I'm ready to go if necessary."
Recruiters report that a few people want to sign up immediately to go to the Middle East, and they have to calm them down. "The Army isn't something you just do on the weekend to go over and fight Hussein," said one Air Force recruiter in Virginia. Generally, local recruiters said they have seen no big surge in walk-in trade.
For the scattered Washington families with sons or relatives sent into the danger zone from units out of Norfolk, Fort Bragg, N.C., or other bases, each day's breaking news has been awaited anxiously without the comfort and camaraderie of base communities.
Mary Ball, morning co-host on WMZQ radio, has a brother who received his orders to ship out this weekend from Norfolk, and she found herself near tears recently on the air.
"It was upsetting to talk about it on the air, and I almost started to cry," Ball said. The station has started a letter campaign for people to write postcards to the troops overseas. The cards will be distributed to soldiers by the USO. A few people have called the radio station to talk about their loved ones heading into the crisis.
"People feel the need to know that people are together in this, particularly when you have to say goodbye to people you love," Ball said. "It's been so long since we've been involved in anything like this, you forget this can happen."
At Bethesda Naval Medical Center, where hundreds of personnel got the word Aug. 9 that they would set sail the next Monday, spouses have formed support groups to help those left behind. Because 35 percent of the personnel on the hospital ship are women, a group for husbands was created. Hospital officials held a session yesterday for the children of those who went, to answer their questions and deal with their fears.
Evelyn Pentzien, wife of Capt. Roger Pentzien, commanding officer of the USNS Comfort hospital ship, had to shift gears radically when she learned she had to stop preparing her husband for the coldest cold and start preparing him for the hottest hot.
Pentzien had been headed for the south pole, on an assignment involving debriefings of crews who had been at the pole for six months.
"My husband called and said, 'They told me not to pack my snow boots,' " Evelyn Pentzien said. "I was ready for a deployment, but obviously a somewhat happier departure."
In the rush of preparation, there was no time for a long goodbye before Pentzien shipped out last Monday. The Pentziens had to fly their 11-year-old son back from California, where he was staying with his older brother, so he could see his father before he left.
"He reacted by saying, 'No, no, no. Daddy can just say no,' " Evelyn Pentzien said of her conversation breaking the news to Jonathan.
Their two younger sons had different responses.
Four-year-old Jeffrey presented a GI Joe hat for his father to take, and 8-year-old Jay became very interested in getting more information on Iraq and what the crisis is all about.
"He wants to know will Daddy be safe. It's hard for me to explain, because Mommy doesn't really understand sometimes," Pentzien said. "I can't tell them why all this is going on."
Staff writer Jane Seaberry contributed to this report.