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KUWAIT CITY — Sitting in the dust, smoking cigarettes, the Marine Corps engineers were flinging complaints about the normal things: wind, women, booze. Or to be more precise, the absence of the latter two and the unending presence of the first.

The conversation rambled for a few minutes, mostly avoiding the topic on everyone’s minds. No silly questions about how they feel about going to war; no silly braggadocio on their part about how ready they are to kill.

Then one of the Marines brought up his family and how his father, several uncles and both grandfathers had seen combat in various conflicts.

Now, here he was near the border of Iraq, ready to add a chapter in his family history.

A couple of other Marines shared similar stories, and so did I: My grandfathers served opposing militaries in World War II. My father fought in Vietnam.

It was an interesting discussion, filling in branches on decidedly green family trees.

A few days later, yet another news account urgently relayed how President Bush and other politicians were putting on their “serious” faces and talking about how sending “our sons and daughters” into combat is never an easy decision.

But it was a second, smaller news item that screamed for attention.

Only one member of Congress, the article said, has a child in the military.

Let’s put it this way: Out of 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate, only ONE is speaking literally when he or she talks about “our sons and daughters.”

It was a striking revelation.

Don’t be mistaken, there are dozens of Congressmen who have sparkling records of service — real-life acts of heroism that dwarf anything dreamed up for a John Wayne or Josh Hartnett character (depending on your generational preference).

Every day, inboxes at Stripes are flooded with e-mails from actual, worried parents of deployed sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen. They are full of hope and longing, constantly verging between cynicism and idealism.

“Tomorrow is promised to no one,” a recent message read. “I could never forgive myself for not trying if I never get the chance to say ‘I love you’ one last time.”

In World War II, a group of forlorn American POWs in the Philippines famously lamented their plight by declaring themselves bastards: “no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.”

Things are different now. They might not be able to call or write home as often as they’d like, but they certainly don’t feel abandoned or forgotten.

The soldiers in the desert are too proud, too focused on their mission to worry too much about their elected officials’ offspring. They understand the difference between rhetoric and reality.

For the time being, their families are stuck in the same situation as the troops — waiting for someone in Washington to make a decision about when “our sons and daughters” get their marching orders.

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