Coping with war on the home front

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Life now: 'Occasionally I'll wake up in the middle of the night for updates.'

For two weeks now, Americans have huddled around their television sets, hungry for news of the war in Iraq. Images on the small screen have formed a visual bridge of sorts from here to the desert. And the cacophony of war has drowned out many of the more normal sounds of home.

But now, as the newness of the war begins to wane, many people are looking around their living rooms and coming to one conclusion: It's time to build a bridge back to a more normal life. Time to spend less time with the folks talking on the tube and more with the people in the next room.

Jacqui Valerio of Melrose, Mass., has always found comfort in her large extended family. But now, she and her five siblings, who are very close, get together for dinner more often. "My mom is really trying to make an effort to have us over once during the week," she says.

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Ms. Valerio's younger sister is also helping to strengthen the connections among them. She recently faxed or e-mailed phone lists to all family members. "We're making sure everyone can get in touch," Valerio says. And at the end of phone calls, "there are a lot more 'I love you's' when we hang up."

For Christine Jerome, her bridge back home began almost two years ago. Ms. Jerome, a Boston native, was living in Washington, D.C., at the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I didn't have any friends or family there, and I thought, I want to be home," she says.

Now, back on familiar territory and contemplating a career change, Jerome is spending more time with her parents. She is also making an effort to strengthen and maintain all of her relationships.

"I have been starting to reach out to friends and family I'm not as close to. I'm sending an e-mail or a card saying, 'Hey, it's been a while. I hope everything is OK.' "

Jerome continues to closely follow the war, and like many other civilians these days, finds herself with renewed appreciation for the safety and comfort of home. "I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I'm by myself,' "she says. "Relatively speaking, I've got it pretty easy."

Not everyone can say that, however. Many people are still connected to the TV as if by an umbilical cord. And that, says Glenn Sparks, a professor and media effects researcher at Purdue University in Indiana, is not healthy.

"In America, we have moved away from each other," he says. "We're moving away from our network of relationships. [But] there's a mountain of research that shows that we are healthier - physically, emotionally, spiritually - when we are closer to other people."

It's no accident, he says, that after 9/11 people formed bonds with strangers, "because we were compelled to do that."

Sparks advises that if people want to watch the war coverage, that they not do so alone. Find someone to watch it with because, he says, TV has addictive properties and can profoundly affect people's moods.

"I would be tempted to plant myself in front of the TV set and watch and keep watching," he admits. But when people overindulge in the media - as he thinks many have done - their behavior may become dysfunctional. Their social and family activities can be interrupted, and they could become desensitized to human suffering.

It's important not to let TV "disrupt our whole social structure," he adds.

For some, a changed relationship with the TV leads to introspection or changed relationships with others.

John Petrocelli of Los Angeles has had the war coverage humming in the background almost nonstop. Yet, instead of cutting him off from reality, the TV has provided a gateway to deeper reflection - of both the world and his own life.

"I'm not going through the day just thinking, How am I going to make more money?" says Mr. Petrocelli, director of business development for a streaming media provider. "A month ago I was thinking about how am I going to get better at my job and how am I going to close a deal?"

Now those personal concerns, while still valid, seem less important as he thinks about those involved in the fighting.

But he still feels the need for an occasional break from war news. His outlet is amateur baseball. A distant cousin of Boston Red Sox player Rico Petrocelli, he is the player/manager for a team that is part of an adult baseball league.

"Baseball is a departure from any chaos or problems in the world," Petrocelli says. "No one thinks about any issues that are going on off the field. It's a great diversion."

Another Californian, Chris Borrelli strives to maintain normal routines. "I'm just going about life as always," he says. But, like Petrocelli, he catches himself reconsidering priorities. "Occasionally it's hard to concentrate on petty or mundane things. A lot of things pale in comparison to the war."

Even so, sometimes the lure of the TV is just too strong. "Occasionally I'll wake up in the middle of the night for updates. TV is addictive," he says.

Mr. Borrelli, an executive in a film- production company, surprised himself by watching little of the Academy Awards, preferring to follow breaking news from Iraq instead.

Joann Haberli of Hankins, N.Y., might find a bit of ironic humor in that situation. And these days she is using humor as her bridge to normalcy. A librarian who loves "Monty Python" and "Saturday Night Live," she has tuned out the war coverage not by turning off the tube, but by changing to a different channel.

She has been watching a lot of the Game Show Network, for both her sake and that of her two children. She doesn't want them bombarded with disturbing images. This way, the only thing they see blown to pieces is the chance at a big cash prize.

"Aside from my brain being melted by hours of Match Game '74, it's working," she says.

Some people might not be able to stand hour after hour of Alex Trebek's searing demeanor or Vanna White's dazzling smile. But the impulse to get kids away from war coverage is a good one, say experts.

Dan Kindlon teaches child psychology at Harvard University and is the author of "Tough Times, Strong Children: Lessons From the Past for Your Child's Future."

Dr. Kindlon says that keeping children away from the TV is important. "Kids don't have the defenses to get the images out of their minds," he says, "And they can't put them in context. They're likely to have nightmares or to overestimate that what they've seen might affect them personally - Saddam Hussein showing up on their doorstep, their house being bombed, etc."

Maintaining the most normal routine possible is important, says Kindlon. But the most crucial action parents can take, he says, is even more basic.

While researching his book, Dr. Kindlon interviewed people in their 80s and 90s. Almost without exception, he found that those who came through tough times best had parents who projected strength in adversity, who projected the air that everything was going to be OK, we're going to get through this.

His final word of advice: Children shouldn't be allowed to watch war footage until they are in their teens.

Sarah Almond does keep the TV off in her house, because she doesn't want her 6-year-old son to be traumatized by war images. The single mother in Wichita, Kan., also tries not to let war talks monopolize the time she and her son spend together. She insists on sticking more closely than ever to certain family rituals such as leisurely breakfasts and dinners when they just chat about their days - with the TV and radio off and the answering machine on.

But for Almond, who does not have relatives nearby, building a bridge to other people has been a more deliberate process. She has worked hard since her divorce five years ago to create a sense of family among people in her community, and that effort seems to be paying off, she says.

"The fact that Aidan doesn't seem scared or threatened by what's going on in the world has a lot to do with our strong community connections and the sense of security they give him," she says.

Living in Kansas, she admits, also makes a difference in how safe she feels. "We are smack dab in the middle of the US, which feels pretty safe. If I were in D.C., I might be a little more worried."

Most comforting of all during this time, says Almond, is her other solid connection - her faith. "I have such a strong belief that God will take care of us. I don't have to hide my fears from my son since I'm really not fearful."

Cindy Champnella of Farmington Hills, Mich., is a mother of five, including two grown stepchildren and two girls, ages 7 and 5, whom she and her husband adopted from China.

Like many parents, Ms. Champnella is adamant that fear not be a basis for their family's actions. "Since Sept. 11, my husband and I have insisted on not changing our ways," she says. "We refuse for our children to live in an environment of fear."

To this end, Champnella limits her children's exposure to TV and newspapers, but she says the school-aged girls are far from clueless about what's going on. "I have been floored at how aware they are of current events," Champnella says. "It's impossible to shield them. They hear things at school and from their peers."

But when the family discusses the conflict in Iraq, they often end up speaking about life in other lands.

"The richness of being an adoptive parent of international children," she says, "is that the kids have a true understanding that the rest of the world doesn't live as we do." This not only helps them feel more compassion for the world's people, but it also inspires a deep appreciation for the good in their own lives, and that "bridge" is essential to their sense of normalcy.

When Champnella is tempted to feel the slightest bit afraid by world events, she thinks of her daughter Jaclyn, who was abandoned in the woods as a baby. Today, the girl is full of courage, gratitude, and unbridled joy.

"No matter what happens," she says, "I want to live like her."

Life then: 'I think we were unaware of so many things.'

More than 60 years ago, Americans were facing World War II, but they were asking some of the same questions people on the home front are asking today: How do we maintain a sense of normalcy? How do we get through this?

Some of the lessons people learned back then are applicable to the Iraq war, too. But even now, after three intervening wars, some who lived through World War II are still wondering how much news coverage is enough.

Patricia Koch, who was 12 years old when the war began, thinks that more news is better. She recalls a great sense of fear in her hometown of Mariah Hill, Ind., partly because people knew so little about what was going on in the war.

Ms. Koch (pronounced Cook) remembers that instead of having around-the-clock updates, newsboys shouted out the headlines from street corners: "B-29s Bombard Japan."

She recalls the local movie theater drawing crowds eager to see the latest newsreels. And every night, she, her mother, and brother huddled around the radio - a tall box with large knobs - that dominated their living room.

"Sometimes it cracked and popped during the war coverage," she says, "and we couldn't hear it very well."

Much of the war information Americans had back then was sketchy by today's standards, and often it was outdated by the time it reached the home front.

While she worries about children's exposure to the Iraq war on TV, Koch - who didn't learn about the Holocaust until World War II was over - wishes that the same level of information had been available in the 1940s. "I think we were unaware of so many things, and I hope [today's] awareness will make us more vigilant and intelligent about what we need to do."

Normalcy was hard to maintain, Koch says, because the war touched so many families personally. (approximately 15 million American men and 350,000 women served.) Her father wasn't a soldier; instead, he worked an hour away building war equipment. He came home only on weekends.

During the week, Koch and her brother helped their mother run the family's restaurant, the only one in town. Sugar and flour were rationed, and business went from a stream to a trickle.

"We just stayed at home and did the patriotic things," she says. "We worked and prayed."

The hardest part, for Koch, was watching the soldiers on leave come into the restaurant. That, she says, gave the war a human face. "You see a good-looking, handsome man in uniform, and then they're killed or injured badly."

Athene Mitchell of Iowa was the only girl in a family of seven children. All six of her brothers served in the war, as did her future husband.

Mrs. Mitchell, who was in her teens at the time, comes down on the side of less news coverage being better than more.

She says that during World War II, it was easier to maintain a sense of normalcy when there wasn't so much information about the war front.

Families might know that a loved one was somewhere in the Pacific, as was the case with her fiancé, but they wouldn't know exactly where he was, or what he was doing.

In a way, that may have given her more peace of mind than actually knowing, she says, because she couldn't have done anything to change the situation, anyway.

Mitchell rolled bandages for the Red Cross and wrote letters to soldiers. "We didn't sit around and wring our hands," she says. "We'd try to get involved in some way. We women would get together a lot, share what we knew. Sharing is a great comfort [during trying times]."

But Mitchell's family, who owned a farm in Iowa, didn't discuss the war very much. Like many in that era, they preferred to work hard and say little.

Her mother's greatest source of solace was the large vegetable garden she raised each year. The garden provided the family with all of its vegetables. Athene and her mother would work in the garden each summer and can the food together each fall - which was handy during a time of rationing.

That was the beginning of a lifelong hobby for Mitchell, who still actively gardens today. Instead of growing and canning vegetables, she now raises flowers - "kind of a Victorian garden," she says, with eight sections and a bird bath and fountain in the middle.

"Gardening was calming [during the war years]," she says. And "when I'm worried, it still relaxes me. I get a lot of that from my mother."

Everyone pulling together

Helen Siml, who lives near Chicago, also believes that the lack of news coverage made life easier for those at home. The war, she says, "seemed far away and not bothersome." She remembers occasionally attending USO dances to support the soldiers.

She was frightened for her brother, who was stationed in France, but in general, she recalls, there was "little sense of fear."

"It was a happy time in many ways," says Mrs. Siml, who had three young children at that point. "I never thought of myself as coping," she says.

Yes, certain items were rationed - such as gasoline and nylon stockings -but there was the comforting feeling "of everyone being on the same team."

Looking back at her own experience, Siml recommends that today's parents keep their children busy with ordinary things, to keep their minds off the war.

She also offers some blunter advice, which many parents find themselves agreeing with these days: "Lighten up, you can't do anything about it. Children should be able to go to parks and do what they normally do."

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