RAY ASHBY couldn't be there to greet his father-in-law as he returned from Kuwait. But just about everyone else - his daughter, cousins, even fellow Shriners - were in Albuquerque, N.M., to welcome Gene Hughes as he stepped from hiding into the embrace of freedom and family this week. ``Relatives are coming from all over the country to see him,'' says Mr. Ashby of Long Beach, Calif. ``Everyone is excited.''
The scene was more somber at the United States Marine reserve center here. Dozens of military reservists - machinists, printers, and dentists in civilian life - were loading duffle bags and M-16 rifles onto buses for a trip to Camp Pendleton.
They were called to active duty in support of Operation Desert Shield, duty that will keep them away from loved ones during the holidays and could take them to the Persian Gulf and war.
``It is always difficult to get called up,'' says Staff Sgt. Robert Acosta. ``When I was on active duty, I didn't have a wife and kids. Now I do.''
Even as American hostages return from Kuwait, to tearful reunions with families at airports, thousands of others are donning fatigues and heading overseas, to tearful departures at other airports. They are like two planes passing in the night, emotional bookends, the hope and heartbreak of a nation playing brinkmanship with an unpredictable Mideast strongman.
Will there be war? How long will US troops be bunkered in the sands of Saudi Arabia?
The soldiers going out don't know. Neither do the hostages - many of them ``human shields'' - coming in, though some of them have opinions from watching Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein up close.
John Remington of Redondo Beach, Calif., returned from captivity in Iraq this week. In between hugs with friends at Los Angeles International Airport, he told reporters he thought the Iraqi ruler would get out of Kuwait.
He says what he missed during his confinement were the ``little things - the hamburgers and milkshakes.''
He and other hostages busied themselves playing volleyball and doing exercises.
Some Americans who were in hiding in Kuwait tell tales of derring-do in escaping Iraqi occupation troops and give harrowing accounts of atrocities committed by the soldiers. The Bush administration, eager to convey its resolve in the continuing Gulf crisis, has seized on the accounts to keep pressure on Saddam to pull out of Kuwait.
Most returning Americans just wanted to savor their reunion with loved ones, away from klieg lights.
Friends and relatives from as far away as Colorado and Idaho are journeying to Albuquerque to welcome back Mr. Hughes, who was in hiding in Kuwait for four months.
Son-in-law Ray Ashby wanted to be among the well-wishers but had to work. His wife, Delores, and their children made the trip. He will be there for the family Christmas.
``We're all very close,'' he says.
It will be a festive Yuletide at the Lammerding residence in Rancho Cordova, outside Sacramento, Calif., as well. Joseph Lammerding, an engineer who had lived in Kuwait for seven years, returned to his parent's house Monday - and the embrace of seven brothers and sisters.
``You can't believe the excitement,'' says one longtime friend of the family.
At the Acosta household in Los Angeles, it was a send-off, not a reunion. Robert Acosta, along with about 200 other reservists, left for active duty this week from the Marine Reserve Training Center here.
The part-time warriors were headed for Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, before being assigned overseas - exactly where, is unknown. A building inspector in civilian life, Sergeant Acosta has been in the reserves for four years. Before that he was full-time military, so he knows what it is like to leave family for duty. So does his wife.
``The family knows that it is something that has to be done,'' he says. Still, it was difficult leaving his two children. He spent several weeks explaining to his four-year-old daughter that he would be going away.
``She just asked if it would be OK to come and pick me up when I get back,'' he says.
Acosta sits in an office at the training center here, near a sod farm in the San Fernando Valley. Stout, with short-cropped hair, he is dressed in fatigues. An M-16 leans against his leg.
``We didn't hold Christmas before I left. They are going to have a big family gathering. I didn't want the kids to think Christmas was canceled just because daddy was going away.''
Capt. Donald Hawkins, also a Marine reservist, did open a few gifts - ones his family thought he should take with him: a Norwegian military shirt, a Sony Walkman, lip balm.
He, too, speaks like a professional soldier.
``I accepted a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve,'' he says. ``That's what marines do - they deploy when necessary.''
``My family is used to it,'' he adds, referring to his wife and three daughters. Later, just before boarding the bus, he reflects another sentiment.
``It will be nice to come back when the job is done - no doubt about that.''