War Made Couple's Relationship Stronger


THERE is a new "Home Sweet Home" doormat on the porch of Eugene and Bernadette Presta's small, ranch-style house here. In the nine months since Eugene returned from the Persian Gulf war on April 13, the values of home, family, community, and country have taken on heightened meaning.

"The war brought us together and gave us a greater awareness of everything we have," says Mr. Presta, a sergeant and tank commander in United States Army's Delta Company, first battalion, second armored division. In sweatshirt and jeans and with a Marine flat-top haircut, he helps seat his pregnant wife at the kitchen table. "We got busy on that right away," he says, pointing to her extended tummy and announcing a due date of Feb. 15. "Living through war gives an added urgency and makes you think a lot a bout the things that may not happen in your life."

The Prestas say the statistic of 30 divorces a day for over a month at Ft. Hood after the war is evidence of the strain of war on relationships.

The experience of separation for war, they say, was a hell they would never like to go through again. Extended time away from home in the spartan environment of desert encampments made Sergeant Presta seriously consider ending his career in the military. But his successful return has erased his earlier doubts. Overall, the couple says they have emerged with a strengthened relationship and have new respect for the US Armed Forces and the United Nations.

"I think [the war] has raised esteem for the armed forces in the general world public's view," he says. "They know we are not the army Jimmy Carter had after Vietnam."

With aw-shucks shyness, Presta reluctantly and most un-boastfully recounts that his 100 hours of active war combat resulted in several hits of Iraqi vehicles at over 2,000 yards. Presta was decorated with a medal of valor that now graces his living room wall explaining "heroism ... in direct and indirect enemy fire."

Press accounts continue to be generally favorable though there is the occasional report that gets under his skin.

"[CBS' show] '60 Minutes' found some Kuwaitis who said the country is now worse off than when they were occupied [by Iraq]," he says. "That really ticks me off. It will be 10 years before that country recovers from what Iraq did to them."

With time on their hands after the abbreviated fighting, many in Presta's unit spent time examining the carnage. Presta's refusal to do so, says his wife, has spared him some of the mental and emotional traumas that affected many of his fellow soldiers. "I was most concerned about the emotional wounds reported by so many Vietnam veterans," she says. "But Gene talked very openly about everything he did, and I think that has helped tremendously."

Presta, now an Army recruiter, says he doesn't talk much about his war experiences to friends, family, or prospective enlistees.

"I don't tell the high school kids I'm recruiting that I was in the Persian Gulf," he says. "Because then all they want to do is listen to war stories." Success of the war makes kids more eager to join up, he says, and parents more reluctant. "They see their kids might actually go to war and that makes them pull back," says Eugene.

The 25-year-old says the country has treated him well. A five-mile stretch of civilians greeted his plane back to Ft. Hood, Texas. A visit to in-laws in England produced yellow ribbons around several trees. And though his transfer away from the essentially military environment happened just six weeks ago, already Korean and Vietnam war veterans at his new work post have patted him on the back for doing a great job.

As spoils of war, Presta displays an Iraqi bayonet given him by a combat comrade and a piece of Iraqi currency with an image of Saddam Hussein that can only be seen when held to the light.

ve realized a lot about who I am and what is important," he says. "I lost a friend over there. I take time for smaller things. I'm nicer to people. I appreciate what America stands for."

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