The four of them had a late breakfast in the motel restaurant, the last real meal they'd share before the wives would have to tell their husbands goodbye. The waitress brought waffles and pancakes. They talked of how to fill this last half day together and decided simply to take a drive. No one was in the mood for a celebration. They wanted this to be a quiet time.

Debra McConnell got in the back with her husband Ed, a Providence,R.I., policeman. Tom and Beth Rezendes were in the front; he was a construction worker who'd helped restore the Roger Williams Park Carousel in Providence.

The two men, part of the Rhode Island National Guard's 119th Military Police Company, had been activated in December. They'd spent the past few weeks training for Saudi Arabia at Camp Pickett outside Richmond, Va.

Now the two couples headed into the Virginia countryside. It was important to Debra that Beth be with her this day. She wanted to make sure that back home, over the next months, there would be someone at the other end of the telephone who would understand.

The day was clear and warm. Soon, they were winding through the Virginia countryside. The ride was peaceful, a welcome way to take her mind off the war. It had been a long time since she'd gotten to sit in the back seat of a car in her husband's arms. They were both 35. For a while, the four of them talked mostly of the scenery. Then Debra felt she should say something about it.

"I can't believe this is happening," she said.

The men did not bother pretending to be strong. They said they couldn't believe it, either.

But no one got overly emotional. They'd done that three weeks before, on Jan. 3, the day the company left Rhode Island.

After some official business, someone announced there would be 15 minutes of private time before the buses left. Debra, of course, had the children with her. Eddie was 11 and Shannon 7. They both looked like their father, the same freckles on their faces.

Beforehand, he had told his wife he wanted to be strong for them. She watched as he first embraced his son. "Be good for your mommy," he said. Then he put his arms around Shannon, lifting her full off the ground. He is a big man, over 6 feet and 220 pounds. Now he just stood there, holding her, not able to put her down. Debra looked at his face and saw how hard he was trying be keep control, and then saw it wasn't working and watched as a tear ran down his face into his daughter's strawberry blond hair. It was the first time she'd seen him do that since his grandmother died 12 years before.

She'd thought it would be their last goodbye, but some delays came up and the company was told they could have a final visit the weekend of Jan. 25th. Debra and Beth left that morning at 4 a.m., heading south on 95. She did not take her kids with her. It would be too hard on them to go through this again. She'd told them she was spending the weekend at a family support convention in New York.

- NOW THERE WERE ONLY A FEW HOURS LEFT of afternoon before the four of them would have to head in to the camp. In the back seat, Debra studied her husband's face. He looked preoccupied. They'd been married almost 15 years. They met when they were in the Army together, Fort Mead, Md. He'd joined because his brothers did. She'd joined to make her dad, a veteran, proud. Ed was different from any man she'd known - a shy, gentlemanly country boy. They married after nine months. When their time in the Army was up, he told her he thought he might make a career of it. He liked the military. But she said it wasn't the kind of life she wanted - moving every few years. He agreed it might be hard for a family and came back with her to Rhode Island where he began a new career as a policeman.

But he did not leave the military behind. He joined the National Guard. In it, he found the same special camaraderie he'd found in the Army. The people in his unit became part of each other. It went that way for over a decade, his duties never separating them for more than two weeks a year. Debra presumed that was the most they'd ever be apart.

Then, a few days after Thanksgiving, Ed came back from a Guard meeting late, close to midnight. In the bedroom, he gently shook Debra awake, then lay beside her.

She turned on her side and looked at his face. He was staring at the ceiling. He'd often had the same stare after a difficult night on patrol, especially when he worked the tougher parts of the city. But this was more profound. She waited for him to talk.

"Deb," he finally said. "We're going to be activated."

"When?"

"I'm not sure."

They talked for an hour that night. He said he wasn't afraid for himself, but he worried about doing well for the men and women under him; he was the company's first sergeant and they would be his responsibility.

All she could think to do was to try to ease his mind. She told him she and the children would be fine. She told him it was a cause worth sacrificing for. Saddam Hussein had committed atrocities and was about to commit more. Ed said she was right. He said he would rather go fight now himself than see Saddam start a worse war in 10 years that might have to be fought by Ed's own children.

- THEY GOT BACK TO CAMP PICKETT AT 5. There was a formation on the grass outside the barracks for roll call. Then it was time.

The two of them shared a final embrace. Ed told her that what made this hardest is he always wanted to be home to protect his children, and now that would not be possible for a long time. Debra told him she would not worry about him - she knew his years in the police force had taught him how to look out for himself. But she would miss him terribly.

Then she walked away and did not let herself look back. She and Beth got into the car and began an all night drive back to Rhode Island. Outside, it was dark. Neither of the two wives spoke for a long time.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service