Barbara Graham will try to do everything the same today, from baking sweet potato pies to watching the football games with her five sons. But nothing is the same since her husband, Willard, left their Prince William County home for the Saudi desert.

In Chevy Chase, Bill Lensing will both cook and carve the turkey this year because his wife, Susan, is aboard a hospital ship in the Middle East, a nurse on alert to treat casualties.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving while a close relative is in a combat zone. In the Washington region alone, more than 1,000 families will set one less place at the table today -- and many said they would say one more prayer -- because a family member is in the Persian Gulf.

All around the Washington area are signs that this is not an ordinary Thanksgiving. Churches scheduled special services, and large gatherings were planned, such as the dinner for 200 military family members at Pentagon City's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Scores of local reservists called to active duty yesterday are spending today loading gear, checking dog tags and writing wills.

"I was sure hoping this wouldn't happen until after Thanksgiving," said Glenn Heselton, a Great Falls construction manager and company commander for the Virginia National Guard's 176 Engineer Group.

"For months people have planned to spend the holiday with their families," said Heselton, who today is at the Dove Street Armory in Richmond preparing to ship out for Operation Desert Shield. "Now we all have to change our plans."

As American troops attempt to celebrate Thanksgiving in the Saudi sun, they are being feted with 105,000 pounds of rolled turkey shipped from Norfolk and a mock Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade at one Air Force base. Families back home are trying to have a traditional Thanksgiving, too, but something -- or someone -- is missing. "Thanksgiving was the boys' day with their father. They wrestled with him, watched the football games. I always stayed up all night cooking so they could smell the turkey as soon as they got up," said Barbara Graham, whose husband, Army Sgt. Willard Graham, left for Saudi Arabia last month.

Last Thanksgiving, Barbara Graham remembers her husband asking the family to clasp hands around the dinner table and say grace. The Fort Belvoir logistics supply officer said the family had much to be grateful for. The Berlin Wall had just fallen and the world seemed to be racing toward peace.

Today, Barbara Graham, a government accounting technician, and her five sons, ages 7 to 20, will encircle the table in their Woodbridge town house and pray that the world isn't rushing toward war.

"I've been avoiding the news lately, it's just getting too heated," she said. "It's hard to think about what might happen."

Financially, as well as emotionally, her husband's absence has been a strain. The Army sergeant normally earns at least an extra $400 a month as a security guard and doing other second jobs. Barbara Graham also said the family loses $200 a month because her husband's food allowance, which normally goes into his paycheck, is now taken out to feed him in the desert.

"We have really been stretched," she said. "The dishwasher is broken and we haven't gotten it fixed. We're careful on the groceries, not buying any specialties. That's why the kids are looking forward to the holiday so much."

Before Willard Graham left for the Middle East, while he was in special training at Fort Stuart in Georgia, Barbara Graham twice drove the 600 miles to see him with the two younger boys, Jeffrey, 9, and Andre, 7.

"I don't like him going to war because he might die," said Andre. "I also don't like him gone because I can't wrestle with him."

It's been exactly 100 days since Navy Lt. Cmdr. Susan Lensing left her Montgomery County brick colonial for a bunk on a ship bound for the Persian Gulf.

Experienced in treating mass casualties in Vietnam, Lensing, a 44-year-old intensive care nurse at Bethesda Naval Hospital, was needed to train others.

Thirty-six hours after getting a call, the mother of two was saying goodbye to her family. "It was the worst," Kimberly Lensing, a junior at Smith College in Massachusetts, remembered. "We had no idea that she would be going."

Since then, Susan Lensing has been sleeping in a tiny, gray metal room with no windows and three roommates. She got a bottom bunk. All her belongings and clothes for six months are stuffed into a locker about one foot wide, according to her letters home.

"Anyone who is in their forties is used to living in a house and having a certain amount of privacy," said her husband, Bill Lensing, chief nurse at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in the District. "To put them in a cubicle with others is extremely hard. They are not college kids."

Since she left Aug. 14 to staff the USNS Comfort medical ship, Lensing has been able to call home only twice. She has missed her son's football games, her daughter's 20th birthday, the house remodeling that she designed. "Unfortunately all the badly burned patients died last night," Lensing wrote home home after four of the USS Iwo Jima sailors injured in a boiler room pipe rupture Oct. 30 died aboard the hospital ship. "It was a real downer for the staff."

"It won't be quite like a holiday without her," said Brad Lensing, 16, the starting quarterback at Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School, who this fall helped the team post its best season in 20 years. "My mom would have been at all those games."

Kimberly Lensing missed her mom so much last weekend that she said she made the 10-hour bus ride home from college just to see her mother's room, where the two of them used to chat and watch television. "It will be difficult," Kimberly said about Thanksgiving dinner. "Mom's place at the table will be empty."

"Without her, it's rather lonely to say the least," said Bill Lensing, who doesn't mind doing the shopping and housekeeping alone but misses sharing early morning coffee and talking over life's little decisions with his wife.

"Have you found me on the map yet?" Susan Lensing asked in a recent letter home. "We still don't know when we are going to war or what. Wish all would be over soon."