For many Utahns a set of telephone numbers that begin with 1-800 is a sort of lifeline, connecting them tenuously with news about their sons, daughters, husbands or wives serving in the Persian Gulf war.

But all too often, the phone is busy.The toll-free numbers are part of a hotline network set up by military authorities to answer family members' most basic questions: Is he alive? Is she injured or captured?

"Usually I can't even get through during the week," said Wendy Nicholes, a Salt Lake resident whose Marine husband, the driver of a light armored vehicle, is stationed somewhere along the Saudi Arabian border with Kuwait.

The phone number for immediate family members, she said, has limited information. "What they tell you is if he's injured or dead. It (the information) is 8 hours old, and I find it a comfort just to call and find out that he's OK."

Because that number was usually busy during work hours, "I stay up until late at night," trying to make contact. Even then, often, she said, "I can't get through.

"But last weekend I've had success. I've been able to get through twice. But that's rare."

She thinks the Pentagon should enlist more operators. "I'm sure it's quite a big switchboard, but with the volume of people over there, I think they should have more operators to help us," Nicholes said.

Recorded reports about the 2nd Marine Division are updated on the other telephone number every 24 hours. "Monday's report was regarding the 2nd LAI (light armored infantry) Battalion," she said.

The report said the 2nd LAI was exchanging fire across the border and that the Marines were getting at least one hot meal per day. Also, it said more showers had been installed in their vicinity.

Karen Greenwood, whose son Travis Suazo is a corporal with the 2nd LAI Battalion, tried to make the call for two days straight last week after 11 Marines were killed near the Saudi-Kuwait border. She couldn't get through and finally gave up trying because it was too frustrating.

"It's also scary, because you want to know and yet you don't want to hear bad news over the phone," Greenwood said.

She finds it easier to get the generalized situation report. "I call that every day, but the best time is after 3 p.m. our time," she said.

"Even though it's a recording, it assures you they're getting hot meals, that they're working to see that they're getting their mail."

The last time Greenwood spoke to her son was on Jan. 20. He said he had received only one letter and it was dated Jan. 2. Greenwood writes to him on average twice a week.

She is grateful that a newsletter for relatives of the men of the 2nd LAI said the Marines recently had a massive mail drop, which was being distributed.

Debra Westlake, a Salt Lake woman who is involved in a support group for relatives of soldiers in the Army, said, "A couple of people have been successful (getting through on the telephone), and the numbers that they've called in relationship to the service people have been very helpful."

A technician with the Army Reserve in Utah, who preferred not to have his name published, said, "Some of the relatives are frustrated because they can't get through . . .

"Common sense tells me, if everyone wants to find out something about it, they're going to be flooding the lines."

"I've been trying, and it's been busy," said Mindi Kreeck, whose husband, Sgt. John Kreeck, is in the Marines. "I've tried it like maybe seven times."

Susan Schilling, the wife of Noel Schilling, a Navy medic, said she tried to call the hotline only when the war started. About 10 times, she made the attempt that first day of the fighting. She didn't try again because the lines were so busy.

Also, her husband telephoned her a few days after the war started. "I knew he was OK."

Probably the Marines' numbers have been so busy because nearly all of the ground fighting thus far involved the Marines, and hundreds of worried relatives are phoning at the same time.

Often, support groups formed for specific units have contacts who keep up with the latest information. They may not be updated as quickly, and may not be as specific as relatives would like, but they can help.

But for those who repeatedly dial the national toll-free numbers and can't get through, as Nicholes said, "You know, it's frustrating, when you're trying to find out if your husband's all right or not. It is frustrating when you're stuck here and you don't know what's going on."


(Additional information)

Hotline numbers

The military's information hotline numbers include:

ARMY: 1-800-626-1440 (family only).

AIR FORCE: 1-800-253-9276.

MARINES: 1-800-523-2694 (family members only).

MARINES: 1-800-676-0017 (generalized updates on the 2nd Marine Division, in which many Utahns serve).

COAST GUARD: 1-800-367-8724.

NAVY: 1-800-255-3808 (immediate family only).

NAVY: 1-800-732-1206 (relatives and friends).