The call was brief. His voice cracking, Donna Beatty's 37-year-old soldier son asked: "Will you take our children into your home?"

"There was a long silence, and then my husband said, `Well, yes, of course,' " Donna Beatty recalled.That's how, in less time than it takes to tell a bedtime story, retirees Donna and Dwight "Skip" Beatty went from being grandparents to being surrogate parents for their son's three children.

Separation is nothing new to 1st Sgt. David Wilson and his wife, 1st Sgt. Virginia Wilson, 33, even before the war with Iraq. Both have served nearly 16 years in the U.S. Army and have spent all but two of the past 30 months separated. He served in Louisiana, and she was assigned to Korea and Germany.

The family had just been reunited in Stuttgart when both sergeants got orders to report to separate outfits in Saudi Arabia. Turning down the assignment probably would have meant discharge, an option the Wilsons rejected because they are both so close to retirement after 20 years.

That left no one to care for 3-month-old Jessica, 3-year-old Melissa and Virginia's son Josh Smith, 12.

After Wilson turned to his mother and stepfather for help, his wife finagled a 72-hour leave to accompany the children to Colorado. She gave her in-laws medical and legal information and left again for war on Dec. 2.

Only after she was gone did the Beattys find a will tucked inside a suitcase.

Now their life of bridge, golf games and charity work is a memory to Donna Beatty, 56, and her 60-year-old husband. Both confess they are tired most of the time, and Skip Beatty's asthma has kicked up from the strain of raising three active children.

A deluge of publicity, too, also has tried their patience. Beatty's frustration peaked when a People magazine photographer kept asking Melissa to "do one more quick prayer, pray one more time" as his camera's repeated flash sent baby Jessica into a crying fit.

"We're just ordinary people who've been thrust into a difficult situation," said Beatty. "Our first priority is staying healthy enough to care for these kids."

His wife, fighting back tears, said the worst part is wondering about the safety of her son and daughter-in-law. The Beattys haven't heard from them since Dec. 30.

But in a four-page single-spaced letter he mailed to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 10, Beatty tried to keep the children's parents up-to-date on their kids' welfare:

"We will do the very best we can, these kids are precious and we love them in a very special way," Beatty wrote. "But I think you know as we do that no one can take the place of Mom and Dad."