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Riding Out the Storm : Coping: Letters, prayer and support groups may prove to be ideal therapy for those trying to weather fears of the Gulf War here at home.


It concentrates the mind wonderfully, wrote Samuel Johnson, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight.

Or, he might have added, when a country collides with war.

For when a nation bleeds it is changed forever. Usual thoughts of more ordinary days seem vacant, even silly before news that is fresh, grim and awful. The images of war persist, then become indelible:

Of . . . sad, dazed faces of soldiers beaten into meaningless confession. Also, one young proud, grinning, handsome, vital face to start a new roster of American dead for military histories and hometown monuments. And hometowns that have barely healed from the last war.

Of . . . an ephemeral hope, because it was only months ago when a wall fell and there was glasnost and perestroika and the world said peace had broken out and this would indeed be the best of times.

But now, again, fear at home. "I have to take pills so I can sleep. I'm afraid something very bad is going to happen to him . . . . "

Soberness. "It is not the bright new world as quickly as we thought . . . . "

Confusion. "Mr. Romero, they said one died . . . . "

Anger. "If they saw one face of the women and children they're bombing they would have to stop this madness . . . . "

Sadness. "The Jewish people have been hurt too many times . . . . "

Resolve. "Appeasement does not bring peace . . . . "

For some Americans at home, the emotional shifting of living in a country at war has been slight. Or non-existent.

Many veterans of previous wars remain insulated because they have been there. Horror is an old emotion, they say, and best denied. You live, you die. Life must go on.

"Gosh, other than to write to them and pray for them, that is about the extent that I can do," said World War II veteran Jim Hollway of Santa Monica.

Other Californians are temporarily toning down their days. CNN is viewed before videos. Society parties have been postponed or canceled.

Yet in the daily lives of many, many people, the war has made modifications that reach far and may even approach permanence.

Prayer has become a habit with one family. A high school student says she will be forever aware of the frailty of life. And the war has produced an epiphany for one social volunteer who recently turned formal political activist.

Prior to 3:35 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, Jan. 16, Mona LaVine of Santa Monica was concerned primarily with the war on hunger. Her hot meals program serves 300 homeless each night. There are always more homeless than meals.

"So it is interesting that in a very short time our government could house a half-million soldiers in a desert without electricity or plumbing, but they will not house the homeless in our own country," commented LaVine. "So I am joining the peace demonstrations. I have committed myself to march once a week at the Federal Building in Westwood."

Such personal involvement, counsels Hyla Cass, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA, is ideal therapy for weathering Desert Storm. Especially for those with friends and relatives serving the military.

"Sending letters, creating support groups, being busy in a positive way . . . I think taking an active stand is very therapeutic," she said. "Prayer is important. I think that when people have a spiritual connection--both their own personal connection with family and community--it gives them a support, as opposed to isolation.

"People become much more disturbed when they are having this experience in isolation."

Cass offers this emotional survival kit for the home front:

* "Positive things can come out of everything. Seeing our lives in view of life and death, and how important or unimportant our activities are . . . this may be a motivation to put more meaning into our lives, our daily activities and our relationships."

* "Stay informed. People feel comforted by being informed. Even if the news is bad, the not knowing can be worse."

* "Reach out to people. Begin to do things that are more significant, particularly things that can ultimately be used to prevent wars. As a psychiatrist, I think that peace begins inside. We wouldn't have wars if people felt OK about themselves. War is a push to power and power has to do with an inner feeling of powerlessness.

The young--like Rachel Braude, a senior at Crossroads School, Santa Monica--are particularly vulnerable to the thunder and dismemberment of war. In this conflict, Braude, 17, is finding fear, confusion and a sadness for children in the Middle East "who are probably my age and have my feelings and who are now in bomb shelters and wearing gas masks."

Braude knows her life and their lives will never be the way they were before bombs fell on Baghdad.

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