When the Defense Department announced last month that Marine Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter and Marine Lt. Col. Clifford M. Acree had become prisoners of war in Iraq, their homes at Camp Pendleton, Calif., were besieged by journalists from around the world.

The Acrees' phone rang so much that his wife, Cindy, had the number changed. Local and national camera crews staked out their home off the base. Members of a Japanese television crew pounded on her front door and, when she did not answer, pointed a camera in the front window until local police arrested them.

Hunter's wife, Mary, finally released a wedding photo of her husband, spoke to some television networks over the phone and then agreed to an on-camera appearance.

That is when the military jumped in.

"Mary Hunter wanted to express her support to the president and the American people for her husband over there," said Maj. Mark Thiffault, who has become Hunter's press agent, of sorts. "That's fine, we appreciate that. But I went out to her house as she was about to go live {on camera} to explain the potential downside of any comments" about her husband, "that they could be used to hurt her husband."

Hunter told the television people to leave. "She has subsequently slipped back into the shadows," Thiffault said.

Since soon after television broadcasts from Baghdad beamed the first news and images of American prisoners of war to the United States, media interest in the personal lives of the captured airmen and their families has been strong.

In response, the military has thrown up a protective shield around families that accept such help. Military public affairs officers have been stationed briefly at several homes to act as buffers between the media and families. The Pentagon has stopped releasing home towns of men and women reported missing in action and is counseling family members not to talk publicly about loved ones.

Local military bases also have issued statements to the media on the families' behalf so that they do not have to face questions personally. Media access to many bases, including Camp Pendleton and Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., has been restricted, and base officials have insisted on arranging and escorting reporters to interviews with families selected to speak publicly now that war has begun.

The military also provides families with answering machines if they do not wish to have their phone numbers changed. It also allows the families to live in base housing for an extended period and will relocate them more than once a year under certain circumstances, according to Pentagon officials. The families are allowed to fly free on a space-available basis on military aircraft in the United States and abroad.

The Pentagon and military spokesmen at the captives' home base said their effort to persuade families not to talk is based on experiences learned from the Vietnam War, when personal information about some POWs got back to their captors and was used against them in interrogation.

"It's a problem that could occur if the families aren't careful," said George Atkinson, civilian chief of the Air Force Missing Persons Division, who has worked on POW/MIA matters since 1969. "Personal information can catch someone off guard, weaken their will."

Everett Alvarez Jr., the longest-held American POW in North Vietnam, said he knows this firsthand. A Navy lieutenant, he was the first pilot shot down over the North and, during 8 1/2 years of captivity, was tortured, isolated for long stints and paraded before jeering Vietnamese.

Early in his captivity, his captors taunted him with clippings about himself and his family from Time and Newsweek magazines and from the San Jose Mercury News, which had reported on his family, which lived in Santa Clara, Calif., Alvarez said in a recent interview.

The Vietnamese never let him read the clippings, so he did not know what had been revealed about his background, he said. As a consequence, the Rockville resident said, he never knew whether his captors could cross-check false biographical information he had given them, but the possibility rattled him.

"If I would fake something, they could match it," he said. "I didn't know how much had been written. I was hard-pressed to know how much I could do."

Personal information in interrogation "is used to break down your emotions," Alvarez said, "to get inside and raise your feelings. It's a psychological war."

Another source of support and shelter for military families has been the formal "wives's network" in military-base communities. The network is divided along the same lines as a unit's command structure, with the wife of the highest-ranking officer at the top.

The network serves as a phone tree to pass official information, but its more important function, said some spouses of military personnel in the Persian Gulf, is providing emotional support.

Mary Lou Grow's network, one of the smallest, consists of 50 wives at Fort Bragg. Grow talks frequently with two other wives, who pass messages. The wives have gone together to the post chapel to pray, then to a local seafood restaurant to talk. At Christmas, they stuffed stockings for the troops.

The network "really brings people together," she said. "Misery loves company. We all look awful. We all have good days and bad."