KILLEEN, TEX. -- When the war becomes too much for him, when he no longer wants to contemplate the danger that his dad faces on the front line in Saudi Arabia, eighth-grader Eric Phipps leaves his mom alone to watch television and retreats to his room. He turns on his computer and punches in a game that allows him to dodge in and out of his troubled reality.
"I'll play Double Dragons and pretend they're all Iraqis or something," Eric said. "I vent my anger out on the video games, because I've never been a really violent person towards other people, but video games -- no mercy. I've been doing wonderful things for my scores. It's sick, you know, that a war can do that to you, but it can happen."
He was talking to five classmates seated around a low table in the library of Smith Middle School this week on the grounds of Fort Hood, one of the largest Army bases in the world, home to the 1st Cavalry and 2nd Armored divisions, whose troops are deployed by the thousands in the Persian Gulf War.
More than 60 percent of Smith students have parents in the war. Many have formed small discussion groups that their counselors call SAFE -- Saudi Arabia Friendship units -- to share their feelings during the most trying times of their young lives.
Smith has been the scene of tension and anxiety since the countdown to war began early this month. Three sixth-grade boys and one sixth-grade girl have been sent to nearby Greenleaf Hospital to be treated for depression. Counselor Rosa Hereford said they were suffering from "being so closely attached to their dads and fearing they would die."
With so many military children, the school has tried to strike a balance, being open and caring with the students without making them think incessantly about the war. Since the fighting started, Hereford said, the school has tried to keep the war out of the classrooms as much as possible, except for the student support groups. She said some of the tension eased last week but is building again as the youngsters anticipate a ground war involving their fathers.
The group of six students last met two days before war started. That day, Francisco Naputi's sixth-grade social studies teacher asked the class to draw what was on their minds, and he sketched a body bag with his dad's body in it. His father maintains tanks in the 1st Cavalry. "My feelings haven't changed since then," Francisco said. "I'm still worried about my father when I watch the news. I think there's a chance of him dying. Sometimes, I just turn it off and go in my room."
Maria Santos, a seventh-grader whose father also repairs tanks, finds solace in her room as well. She turns up her favorite rap music, something her dad does not like, and tries to blast away her worries, she said. At school, whenever her social studies teacher begins a discussion on the Middle East, Maria raises her hand and asks if she can go to the bathroom. "It's just too painful for me to sit there and listen," she said.
Sixth-grader Chad Andersen, whose father is a chemical weapons specialist, said that, while he has been able to watch the war on television this week, it was difficult the first few days. "I couldn't watch it when the war broke out," he said. "I went to the other room while my mom was watching. I sat down and thought for a while." Chad paused and looked at the other students. He finished his thought in a slow, shaky voice: "I thought my dad was going to die."
Brandy Jhingoor could not stop crying the last time the group met. It was the day her father, a communications operator, left for the war. He arrived in Saudi Arabia, she said, "a few hours before the bombing started." Now the seventh-grader said she feels a little better. Her dad called home this week and said he was so far from the front line that he could not even hear the sounds of war.
"That's where my dad's supposed to be!" shouted Eric Phipps, whose father is in military intelligence. "My dad, what he's doing and what he's supposed to be doing are two very different things. What he's supposed to be doing is sitting in a nice cool office just sipping coffee and stuff. What he is doing is he is on the front line for the ground war. It's unnerving that he's over there, but the front line -- oh, please."
Jedediah Apgar, a sixth-grader whose dad also fixes tanks for the 1st Cavalry, said his whole family watches the war on television until his mother becomes sick of it. "She's been going out a lot, because sometimes she just sits and watches the news all day and then she says, 'I can't take it, I'm going out somewhere,' and she leaves, and we all stay home. I have a brother and two sisters, and we stay home and play games. We play Monopoly, Uno and rummy until mom comes home."
Chad said his family, rather than watching war news, often puts a videotape into the VCR that shows his father dressed in desert fatigues working on a vehicle. "My 3-year-old sister sits right in front of the TV and says: 'My daddy! My daddy!" Jeddy said his mom clutches a snapshot of her husband almost all day.
Early this week, the youngsters were thinking more about the meaning of a ground war. "The ground war is coming," Chad said. "That means our dads are going to go into Kuwait. It makes you nervous. When I think about it sometimes, I go out and skateboard and try to do my best at that."
Eric said he felt better last week "than I did two weeks ago because the waiting was finally over. I think it was the waiting that killed me, the anticipation. Now I'm not going to be worried until February when the ground war starts. Then it's . . . ugh."
"It isn't real good to have a ground war in February because that's Valentine's Day," Jeddy said. "That's when you're supposed to be with the people you love."