CARSON CITY, NEV. -- Weeks after the Persian Gulf crisis erupted, Kim Edwards angrily uprooted the vegetables from the garden she had planned to show off to her husband when his city planning contract ended in Baghdad.
Now, 16 weeks since her husband was detained in Iraq when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, Edwards says she has lost the strength to care for her children, ages 2, 5 and 6.
"I used to read with them all the time; now I let them watch television all day." With the family's breadwinner gone, the financial and emotional strain has overpowered her.
Drawn and frazzled, she chain-smokes and drinks endless cups of coffee. "There are days when I don't even shower or do my hair. I've just lost my zest."
About 100 American men are detained in Iraq, many held at military and other strategic locations as "human shields" against attack. The State Department estimates that an additional several hundred Americans are still in hiding from Iraqi troops in Kuwait. Most wives and children were allowed to leave.
Like a handful of Americans among the many who were unwillingly separated from spouses by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Edwards is pinning her family's short-term happiness on a visit to her husband in Baghdad.
But for her and others, there is a cruel twist in Saddam's offer to reunite families over the holidays. With their sole financial providers detained, they are without a source of income, since savings left behind have been frozen, and many foreign companies that employed their spouses in Iraq and Kuwait have discontinued salaries.
They get by with help from relatives or others and have little extra to spend on a trip that is likely to cost up to $3,000 for a week's stay.
Added to the financial strain, said Michael Saba, a businessman who has organized a hostage family support network -- Coming Home in Champaign, Ill. -- is the peculiar nature of this hostage crisis. While corporations and individuals have flooded the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia with donations, voluntary support for the hostage families back home has been sparse.
Relatives who acknowledge the plentiful support of close friends and family also speak of the standoffishness of others toward their plight.
"We're starting to feel like Vietnam vets," said Nome Charchalis, whose husband is in Iraq, and who is living with her sister in Utah.
Tom Van Baale, an Iowa police officer whose father-in-law is being held, said he is tired of the accusatory tone many people take when they find out who he is. "One of the first things I'm always asked is, 'What was your father-in-law doing over there?' "
Many wives have had to put off creditors. Some have sold their cars or stopped paying mortgages, and some have applied for welfare. Still others have applied for, and in some cases have received, help from the Kuwaiti Embassy, which promised financial aid to American families of employees working in Kuwait when the invasion began.
"It's hard when you're facing financial ruin and the loss of your mate, all by yourself," said Edwards, whose family is living off savings. ". . . It would be a big thing for me to go on welfare and collect food stamps."
A measure passed by Congress sets aside $10 million for hostage family relief but the regulations are still being worked out, a State Department official said last week.
Feelings about the hostages and their families are complicated, in part, by the fact that Saddam has so openly dangled the hostages' fate and treatment before the world in an attempt to manipulate U.S. and international public opinion in his favor.
President Bush at times has insisted that concern for their fate cannot dictate U.S. foreign policy. More recently, however, he described Saddam's "brutality" toward them as part justification for the buildup of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.
The State Department has warned Americans against visiting relatives held in Iraq, citing safety concerns and denouncing Saddam's offer as a propaganda ploy. But it said last week that Americans who decide to go anyway will be allowed to circumvent the prohibition against spending money in Iraq by applying to the Treasury Department for a waiver.
Charchalis, 58, is one of Americans who fled Kuwait and Iraq with nothing, leaving her husband behind as an Iraqi captive. She has been living on her sister's farm in Utah since returning. She and her husband, a 60-year-old landscape architect and planner, had sold their home, car and many of their possessions earlier this year when he landed a five-year contract in Kuwait.
They transferred their assests to a Kuwaiti bank.
"I have no income at all," said Charchalis, whose sister's family now supports her. "It's terrible after having been on your own."
Like others in her situation, Charchalis has had to buy health and life insurance. She convinced her doctor and dentist to put a hold on her bills. Her daughter, without a parental $1,000 a month stipend, has had to drop out of the University of Nevada and is working as a coffee shop hostess.
Barbara Smiley's husband is a data base administrator who arrived for work in Kuwait City three days before the invasion. He was taken to Iraq shortly afterward. Since then, Smiley has received a $5,000 gift from the Kuwaiti Embassy. She has a part-time job, but was still forced to ask creditors for temporary relief.
The credit card company turned her down, but the bank that holds her mortgage agreed to delay payments for three months after "a friendly voice on the other end" explained that the bank was doing the same for military reservists' families called away in connection with Operation Desert Shield.
"My husband," said Smiley, who has spoken to him by telephone, "said he was having nightmares that I would have to sell the house." That is one move she is adamant about not taking.
Van Baale's father-in-law had a one-year contract to work as a certified public accountant in Kuwait. He was due to leave Aug. 2. While his family's income has not been directly affected by his capture, Van Baale's law enforcement salary does not leave much to travel on with two children to care for.
Still, he and his wife will deplete their savings to visit him if they do not find another way to finance the trip.
"This is an opportunity to see Chuck, to hug him, to tell him we love him, to take him some warm clothes, anything he needs," Van Baale said.
Several families have criticized the U.S. government for not offering more financial help, and point to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis as a comparison.
Shortly after that crisis began, Congress passed the 1980 Hostage Relief Act exempting the incomes of hostages, most of whom were U.S. diplomats, from federal income tax during their captivity.
It also provided families with educational and medical benefits and other forms of relief for three years.
In the 16 weeks since her husband's paycheck stopped coming, Edwards has used up two-thirds of the family's savings.
With a little less than $10,000 left in the bank, she is determined to make the trip to Baghdad with a small group of other wives.
She also plans to bring her children with her, although she argues often with her mother about this decision.
"I have to judge it against the emotional aspect," Edwards said. "Maybe they won't get to see him again."
Edwards has an advantage over many hostage wives; she has lived in Baghdad and has already visited her husband there since the invasion.
Last month, Edwards and her mother showed up unannounced at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington. After two days of pleading, she was granted a visa.
Her husband is one of the westerners who is not being held as a "human shield." As an urban planner on contract with a Japanese firm, he is being forced to go to work each day as if nothing were different. But he cannot leave the country and is not being paid.
Edwards spent six days with him during her earlier trip. In what she describes as the surreal atmosphere of the city, her husband shows up for work everyday, increasingly depressed, and his Iraqi friends greet him with smiles and the normal courtesies.
They even held a barbecue for him.
"There was a terrible feeling that nobody could touch the subject" of his detention, Edwards said. "They kept asking me, 'Are you enjoying your stay?' "
The visit turned out to be awkward for the couple, although Edwards said it has strengthened their marriage.
The excitement and pleasure of being together wore off almost immediately, she said, when the gravity of the situation fell upon them.
"My husband really thought we'd be doing what we do here, playing Scrabble, cooking. . . ," she said. "But we didn't even open the bottle of champagne I brought. After the first night, it was overwhelming. My husband, one night, was just sobbing, saying that he could no longer just get up in the morning and go to bed at night with nothing in between."