At first, there were certain pleasures to his being gone. The kids were fine with fishsticks for dinner. No wrestling shows. No dirty clothes left in the bathroom.

Now, three weeks into her husband's deployment with the 101st Airborne Division, Stephanie Washam would give anything to trip over a boot.

Driving to her job at the Waffle House, she keeps her cell phone on, like most 21st-century military spouses. There are e-mails and downloaded pictures of tents. A shoebox full of beef jerky and Maxim magazines can reach the desert in 12 days.

Somewhere out there, Spec. David Washam of the 2nd Battalion, 320th Regiment, is listening on his headphones to the CD his wife burned for him, the song "Black Velvet" hopefully reminding him of something better than a sandstorm.

And yet for all the technological wonders, the most primitive worries took hold when the bombs started dropping.

"What are we gonna do if daddy doesn't come home?" Washam's 10-year-old stepdaughter asked.

So Washam became her own version of soldier: up at 5, getting her stepdaughter ready for fourth grade, getting her 14-month-old ready for day care, and splitting her days between the Waffle House and a full load of college courses she takes at Fort Campbell. She is 22.

"I thought it was going to be easier," she says in her neighborhood on post where the mid-rank enlisted soldiers live.

Outside on the asphalt streets, there are children, bikes and dogs, but few men.

Fort Campbell is home to about 26,000 soldiers, including the 5th Special Forces Group and 18,000 members of the 101st Airborne Division, almost all now in the Persian Gulf region. When reports reached Fort Campbell Saturday night that a grenade attack -- possibly by a colleague -- killed a soldier and wounded 13 others at a base camp for the 101st in Kuwait, wives and family members spent tense hours trying to learn the whereabouts of their soldiers, most of whom had already moved to forward positions in Iraq.

It was just the latest emotional punch. When the deployment orders came last month, there was a furious surge of energy in this community straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Soldiers cleared the Wal-Mart shelves of baby wipes and batteries. They worked extended shifts to prepare for departure. Some got married. Some gave their life to Jesus Christ. Others blew $400 on portable DVD players to take to the desert. And then they were gone.

What remains is not a ghost town, but a teeming habitat of wives, girlfriends and children, and to a much smaller degree -- the Army is still 84 percent male -- husbands and boyfriends.

Fort Campbell exists in a parallel universe with the battlefield 7,000 miles away. The pear trees are starting to blossom here, but psychologically, everyone is ankle-deep in desert sand. Even the TV meteorologist points to a weather map and announces, "It's 78 in Basra, with mostly cloudy skies."

News crews from all four local TV network affiliates are traveling with the 101st Airborne Division, and blasting real-time video of the hometown team. Part Ernie Pyle and part MTV, a soldier in a trench cradles his M-16 and gives a plug for Oakley sunglasses, "the best eyewear on the planet."

The war feels two blocks away, and it's hard to stop watching.

"Turn off the TV," advises Alison Cox, whose husband, Capt. Clint Cox, is the Alpha company commander of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment.

As a Family Readiness Group leader, Alison Cox takes care of the wives and girlfriends in her husband's company. (No women serve in the infantry in ground combat.) There are 222 registered FRGs on Fort Campbell, each corresponding to a particular company, brigade or battalion.

To attend an FRG meeting during the week the war begins is to observe steely resolve, the frayed nerves of single parenthood, Christian devotion and "Sex in the City" humor, Fort Campbell-style. FRG members range from the wives of lowly enlisted men making $1,800 a month to the Yukon-driving captain's wife.

The old adage, "If the Army wanted to you to have a family it, would have issued you one," is being replaced in some ways by a Chuck E. Cheese mentality that began taking shape before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The culture had to change: More women and married couples were serving, and male soldiers were playing a larger role in fatherhood. Half of today's soldiers are married, with children.

The current climate is far from perfect: Several homicides related to domestic violence have occurred at Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg in recent years. And the emerging era of constant deployment is putting a new strain on families. But the Army is trying. Soldiers who are now fighting in the Gulf will receive counseling on how to make the transition back to family life even before they leave the desert.

Many will come home to new babies. Twelve of the 60 women in Cox's FRG, including Cox, are pregnant.

"Little welcome-home presents," one woman says at the FRG meeting.

"No," another says, "the little welcome-home presents were right after Afghanistan."

Wearing olive camouflage, a sergeant who oversees non-deployed troops and family members of the Third Battalion steps forward. "And speaking of babies," he says, "they are talking about limiting availability of popping puppies at the hospital."

The announcement causes concern among the women. Why have the OB-GYNs and pediatricians been deployed to the desert, leaving a scarcity on Fort Campbell, one wife asks. Others chime in, more willing to bite through the military's red tape than the sergeant.

Crises on the home front are certain to arise. During the 2002 Afghanistan deployment, one soldier left his pregnant wife with no bed or crib. (They divorced when he returned.) Another wife, still a student at Fort Campbell High School, struggled on her own. Some wives, strapped for cash, made emergency requests for food and diapers.

Alison Cox tries to solve the problems. "It makes the guy's job so much easier if the wife is supportive," she says. "There's a lot of dealing with the wives that I can do."

Everyone is encouraged to sign a poster that's being mailed to the guys in Alpha company. The women scribble little notes.

"Kevin Palmer, you are the love of my life."

"I {heart} you, Carmelo Pruneda. We've got so much to look forward to."

"To my Hebrew stallion, I miss you and love you."

The next afternoon, some of the women meet at a coffee shop across from Fort Campbell to assemble plastic Easter eggs for the upcoming children's egg hunt. Each woman began her day by reaching for the TV remote.

There are reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have been injured in a U.S. attack.

"He's such a liar," says one wife, mocking Hussein. " 'I don't have Scud missiles.' Hello, you just shot a Scud over our camp."

Someone in the group heard that the Iraqi leader was offering $25,000 to any family who provides a child to act as a suicide bomber.

One wife shakes her head, placing a Sweet Tart gently inside a pastel Easter egg. "He needs to be taken out," she says.

The next morning, Stephanie Washam arrives at the Waffle House for her 7-to-2 shift. She doesn't belong to an FRG. The groups strike her as a little bit snobby, too closely mimicking the hierarchy of rank. Instead, she relies on her neighbors on post, swapping kids and car rides.

Working takes her mind off the war.

"Hey, Tom," she says, pouring coffee at one booth and moving to the next. "Mornin', Jack."

There is bacon spitting on the griddle and a country song playing on the jukebox, but nothing is the same. Usually, soldiers jam the Waffle House for breakfast after physical training. This morning, a lone soldier in green camouflage sits at the counter.

"We lost a Marine," a customer says, relaying the latest news from the car radio.

Washam rips a yellow ticket from her pad and calls to the grill, "Order, over medium, one ham." And then to herself: "I'm always wondering where David is in the grand scheme of things."

Mid-morning, the Waffle House phone rings. "Stephanie, telephone," a waitress calls out says. Washam lifts the receiver. It's him. "Hi, baby," he says, a crystalline connection.

This will be his last call for a while; the 101st is moving toward battle. He received her package, including the homemade CD. The beef jerky is stashed in his rucksack for the days ahead.

They talk about the kids and the car. Washam tells her husband not to worry about anything but the job in front of him. He supplies target locations to the gunners. "Get it done and come home," she says. He tries to say something, but his voice catches with emotion. She can hear other soldiers in the background, hollering for the phone, and then he is gone.

Patsy Fernandez reads with son James after an Army support group meeting.Alison Cox, who is seven months pregnant and has a young son, runs an Army-sponsored support group at Fort Campbell Army Base in Kentucky. Her husband Clint is fighting in Iraq.Stephanie Washam, 22, works as a waitress while taking college courses and caring for two kids. "I thought it would be easier," she says of having her husband away in Iraq.