Frank Peck stared at the yellow school bus. What do you say? He paced around the parking lot at Great Mills High School on that Sunday morning in July. Then he stared back at the bus and the faces of those 19 teenage boys joking around on board, unaware of their coach's anguish.
How do you tell them?
How do you tell them that after being their basketball coach -- and for many, their mentor -- you'll be shipping off with the 116th Brigade Combat Team of the National Guard, bound first for Kuwait and then Iraq? How do you tell them that even you don't know how to feel about leaving behind your wife and two children for a one-year tour of duty?
You tell them, then you cut all ties.
Peck cleared his throat, took a deep breath and boarded the bus that was ready to take Great Mills's varsity and junior varsity basketball teams to their annual summer camp at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He told his players that not only would he not make the trip, but that when the Hornets' season begins on Dec. 10, he would not be with them.
Peck didn't say much more -- only because he couldn't bear one second longer on that bus. Neither could his players.
"I got weak to my stomach," sophomore Will Smith said, "and my eyes got all watery."
Peck hurried off the bus. He thinks he might have waved to a couple of players as he and his wife, Holly, walked to their car and drove home. Forget about going to church that morning.
"I didn't want to make eye contact with anyone," Peck said. "I'm thinking, 'I want to get out of here as soon as I can.' I couldn't stand in front of them crying and tell them I'm going to a war zone. . . .
"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Smith said: "My last time seeing him, I was sitting on those last [rows of] seats on the bus. I watched him walking to his car, hugging his wife and crying."
Friday, a little more than four months after telling his team he was going off to war, Sgt. 1st Class Frank Peck, 36, shipped out.
The rental car was parked outside the Peck house in California, Md., Friday afternoon. Inside, the house was in perfect order, as if it were just another day. Could the family be taking this day for granted? Just three weeks ago, Frank surprised his family when he and his brigade were allowed to come home before deployment.
The Pecks tried to stuff a year's worth of memories into a 20-day visit. He arrived home on Halloween, in time to take his oldest daughter, Faith, trick-or-treating. Nine days later, he was there for Faith's 10th birthday. He also saw his 8-month-old daughter Camdyn's first teeth growing in.
Last Saturday, the family had Thanksgiving dinner. The night before Frank deployed, the family set up their Christmas tree -- with the strange accompaniment of a neighbor mowing his lawn in 60-degree weather. They exchanged presents -- Frank received three basketball books -- and got dressed up for their family portraits photographed at a nearby Target.
Finally, 10 minutes before he was to leave, Peck put on his uniform. First came the tan fatigue pants. Then the heavy boots. Faith played on the living room floor with Camdyn as Holly was printing out Frank's flight information. Finally came the fatigue jacket and cap.
She stopped her husband on the front porch to take a picture of him in uniform. Frank hugged his wife and children, and loaded up the car.
"I don't like to drive," Holly said, "and on days like this, I definitely can't do it."
Frank headed to the airport. He will spend the next few days at Fort Bliss, Tex. On Thanksgiving day, he and the 116th BCT expect to arrive in Kuwait. Peck will provide voice and data networking for units in combat. He will also give fellow soldiers as much basketball chatter as they can handle. After all, while in training the past two months in Fort Bliss, Peck's comrades dubbed him "Coach."
That moniker filled a void for Peck. Since getting a phone call July 16 with the presidential order to serve while he and the family were on vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Peck has spent four months learning how to cope with separation.
Peck had realized his dream of coaching varsity basketball last fall when Great Mills hired him as head coach, one year after he became the Hornets' JV coach, two years after he joined the program as a volunteer assistant and three years after he arrived in St. Mary's County.
After interviewing for a teaching job at the county's Board of Education office, Peck drove over to Great Mills just to see where he hoped to coach one day. After one 13-11 season, Peck had to brace himself for basketball withdrawal.
"He got off the phone" after getting his order to serve, Holly Peck said, "and his first words were, 'That's two seasons, not one.' We were prepared for [deployment]. He wasn't prepared to miss that much basketball."
Peck is not scheduled to return, at the earliest, until next December, after the start of basketball season.
Peck had one month before he left for training at Fort Bliss. Rather than be reminded of the promising basketball season he would miss, Peck decided to cut all ties with the program. He didn't want to see any of his players after that moment on the bus.
Peck stayed away from open gyms at Great Mills. One afternoon, he looked out his front door and saw junior James Moore walking into to a friend's house down the street. Peck couldn't bring himself to say hello.
In late October, Peck and his brigade were surprised when they received a chance to come home just before deployment. Peck knew this would overlap with the first day of basketball tryouts -- Nov. 15, "a real tough day," he said -- and fought with himself not to go.
Derek Sabedra had a unique perspective into Peck's thoughts. Not only did he take over for Peck on an interim basis as Great Mills's coach, Sabedra is also a mental health therapist for St. Mary's County public schools. After he finishes treatment with a patient, Sabedra said he cannot see them for six months as the treatment works its course.
In a way, Sabedra sees Peck, the patient, and the team, the therapist.
"That's what Peck is doing," Sabedra said. "I could see him walking through that door [to Great Mills's gymnasium] and losing it. I would."
Smith said he will never forget Peck boarding the bus. Almost on cue, the whole bus went quiet.
"When he came on there with that face, I knew something was up," Smith said. It was "a face you don't want to see from someone you admire."
Nobody on the team admires Peck more than sophomore Cody Kohn.
"He's just a cool guy, you know?" Kohn said. "Some coaches will yell at you, and maybe that's how they teach you. Coach Peck, he was serious, but he kept us laughing and that's why we gave it our all."
For his 10th-grade English class, Kohn had a one-page assignment that he had to read in front of the class about his hero.
He chose Peck.
"I started reading it and I almost broke down," Kohn said. "I got about three-quarters of the page down and then I turned to my teacher and told him, 'I can't finish it,' and just gave it to him."
Peck first met many of his players while teaching physical education at Spring Ridge Middle School, which feeds into Great Mills.
"This is awful. It's heartbreaking," said junior Matt Leddy, who remembers Peck coming out to watch his recreational league game in eighth grade. "I know he's wanted this for so long and we wanted to help him do it. He's like that close uncle you have. He'd do anything for you."
Peck's departure has forced his players to face a very mature reality.
"He might not come back," Leddy said. "Everyone realizes that's a possibility and it's scary."
After 17 years in the National Guard, Peck knew his call to deployment was inevitable. But he said it could not have come at a worse time.
"When Desert Storm came around [in 1991], I was hoping to be deployed," Peck said, "but not now, not when I've gotten my teaching going and my coaching going. The group of guys coming back [on Great Mills] are tremendous guys and to not be around them is tough. . . . I expected it, but you never want to believe it. You knew your number would eventually come up. The only question was whether I would work security at an airport or would I go to a foreign country."
Holly Peck said she won't know what to do the next three months on Wednesday and Friday nights, when Great Mills usually has games. Her entertainment dilemma doesn't end there.
"I won't know what to watch on TV," she joked, "because there's no [tapes of Great Mills] basketball games on all night long replaying and replaying."
The paper Frank keeps on his night table to draw up plays when he has his midnight epiphanies will stay blank.
His players plan to keep in touch. Peck is looking forward to e-mailing with them, and he has arranged to have each game -- just as he has for Redskins and Maryland games -- burned on to a DVD and mailed to him to watch on his portable DVD player.
Burned into permanent memory, however, is that Sunday morning on the yellow bus.
"He had tears in his eyes. It wasn't easy for us, too," Leddy said.
"But this is still his team."