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Footage of POWs Puts a Grim Face on the Statistics

January 23, 1991|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN CLEMENTE — Cheryl Trahan is a pragmatic Marine wife who believes in telling her children the basic truth about things--war, death, life. "They're not dumb," she said Tuesday. "They're just short people."

So her daughters, 8 and 4, have not been shielded from the television set, on which war, like the play-by-play of a football game, has unfolded daily in their living room since last week.

But the two little girls have yet to see the gripping footage of dazed and apparently battered American hostages imprisoned in Iraq. Their mother has decided that this is one truth they can avoid. Right now the war is abstract, like some science-fiction movie with no casualties.

Seeing "a beat-up man" puts a face to the victims, and "I don't know that that's necessary," said Trahan, whose husband, Capt. James Trahan, 30, is commander of a Marine infantry company from Camp Pendleton.

As the haunting faces of America's first prisoners of war flashed across television screens, relatives of soldiers in the Persian Gulf--about 30,000 of them from Marine bases in Orange and San Diego counties--reacted to the images that have suddenly put faces to allied casualties. Tustin-based helicopters were reported moving toward the Kuwaiti border while El Toro-based F/A-18 Hornets and A-6 Intruders have been in on the daily bombing runs against Iraq.

The prisoners, they said, were clearly forced to criticize the allied attack on Iraq and were probably tortured before they bad-mouthed their countries in stilted sentences. And they believe their soldiers will hold up under the strain. It was not necessarily wrong to broadcast the Iraqi tape of the POWs, they said. But watching it, in the words of 38-year-old Barbara Buynak, wife of a Camp Pendleton-based Marine pilot, "is every (military) wife's nightmare."

Bob Locher of Mission Viejo has begun weaning himself from marathon television viewing of the week-old war. But as he works at home--he is a district manager for a Proctor & Gamble subsidiary--Locher sneaks a few minutes during lunch hour. His future son-in-law, Cpl. Tony Latiolai, 21, is a Marine Corps sniper from Camp Pendleton who has been in the gulf since shortly after he shipped out New Year's Eve.

Latiolai lived with the family before he was sent to the gulf, and he plans to marry Robin Locher on March 7, 1992. His departure has affected the whole Locher clan.

What would Tony do as a prisoner under such pressures?

"We think about it daily," Locher said. "Those guys look pretty battered and bad."

Trahan, a civil engineer by education, now only watches television "three or four times a day, but I don't scrutinize every minute of it."

A Marine wife for a decade, she has learned to help her family cope with life in the military by preparation and a positive attitude. As she talked on the phone, her daughters, 8-year-old Elizabeth and 4-year-old Vanessa, played nearby.

"They think every daddy's going to go get one bad guy and then go home," she said. "I try to tell them as much of the truth as possible, but simplified, then have them repeat it back to me."

Of the hostages, she said: "I think, 'Thank God they're alive,' then you think, with what they may have gone through, 'Gee, is that better?' Only they know. I think that British guy," who appeared the most battered about the face, "probably resisted a little more."

She said she can't help but wonder, "What would my husband do in that situation? But these guys have been trained for this."

Buynak has four children--18, 13, 6 and 15 months old. While her husband, 35-year-old Capt. Larry Buynak, spends his days at the vortex of battle, her family watches the war and the hostages on television, and it's "all-consuming."

"I was appalled," she said of the POW footage. "It was obvious they'd already been through so much. They (Iraqis) didn't even hit them or hurt them in places that couldn't be shown!"

The two oldest daughters watch TV programs that they choose, but Buynak's 6-year-old daughter doesn't, particularly the hostage footage. "That would be hard for her."

She, herself, watched the hostage tapes only once. "When it came on again I had to turn it off. Once was plenty. It was too horrible."

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