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Christmas came just a bit early this year for Joanne Sentman.

It came in the form of a small package from the Middle East, a delivery of video and audio tapes from her husband, John, in the desert of Arabia. With her 3-year-old son, David, playing nearby, Mrs. Sentman took a moment Friday to treasure the gift.

"I've been looking for this," she said. "I didn't know when it would get here, but I knew he would send it."

Tech. Sgt. John Sentman sat down Monday in a tent in the heat of a December evening and recorded his 15-minute greeting to his family, using equipment and tapes donated to the men and women of Operation Desert Shield.

His face was deeply tanned by the desert sun, and his eyes mirrored the weariness of an endless succession of 18-hour days spent loading and unloading cargo from airplanes. But his heart was home, where Christmas brings at least a chance for snow.

On a dusty intersection of tent-lined sand and gravel pathways nearby, a signpost noted the juncture of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Michigan Avenue. A few steps farther on, another sign read "Niagara Falls, 10,324 miles." But for 15 minutes while the camera was running, that gap was closed.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Mrs. Sentman will use a rented video camera to return the favor. The rental will cost $100, straining a budget already worn thin by the cut in income that followed her husband's call to active duty with the 914th Tactical Airlift Group of Niagara Falls.

But what price can you put on a 3-year-old's Christmas?

"This is like a long nightmare," John Sentman said quietly after his session in the videotape tent. "Except you never wake up."

At Mirage Air Base in an Arabian peninsula country on the rim of the Persian Gulf, Christmas this year will be a lonely time.

A new aircraft will arrive from home to replace one worn by constant duty in the blowing sand and the searing heat. When it leaves Niagara Falls with military cargo Saturday, it may carry some mail and packages for the reservists -- if there's room.

There will be Christmas decorations, too, twinkling lights festooned along the edges of tents and plywood huts. But the only family on hand to celebrate the holiday with the reservists will be the men and women of the 914th, who have forged closer bonds this year to combat the loneliness so far from home.

"It's a lot easier for us," said Master Sgt. Gerald L. Leo of Niagara Falls, who has the company of his son Anthony at the 914th's home-away-from-home. "Having someone with you for the holidays from the family is good, but it's a concern for me if war breaks out."

"We were always pretty close," said Sgt. Anthony Leo. "This makes us a lot closer."

But for Master Sgt. Leo, 46, and his 20-year-old son, thoughts, too, will turn to home -- to a wife and mother, a daughter and sister still here.

Home also will be on the mind of Master Sgt. Bob Galbreath, 58, of Albion.

"I'm here; I'm not happy about it, and I'd rather be home with my grandkids," he said. But like the rest of the reservists, he is set on living up to his commitments.

For the men and women of the 914th and the other units that make up the 1650th Tactical Airlift Wing here -- and for the Buffalo-area Coast Guard reservists serving a few hundred miles closer to Iraq and Kuwait -- that means yet another 90 days in the gulf area. The units originally were scheduled to return home Jan. 1; preparations for war have pushed that date back until spring.

The 914th's air base, built on the sand near the runways of a major airport, has some comforts -- air-conditioned tents, some recreational facilities, an occasional trip to town for those who can afford the time. It's a far cry from the primitive bases of the Army and Marines in the deep desert, and the airmen who fly all over the Arabian peninsula know it.

But separation never is easy, and the problems of those left behind prey upon the morale of the troops at Mirage. Back home, spouses wage their own battles with loneliness and with the cuts in family income that followed the unit call-up.

Rare employers continue the reservist's pay and benefits; more make up the difference between civilian and military pay. But some do nothing for their employees called to active duty, and the blow falls hardest on those who are self-employed.

For John Sentman, a tree-trimmer for the Village of Kenmore, the pay differential benefits ran out Nov. 1. The village also tried to cancel family health benefits on 12 hours' notice, until County Legislator Charles Swanick, D-Kenmore, intervened.

"I'm getting to know what kind of items should be donated to food pantries," Mrs. Sentman notes ruefully.

Flying as loadmaster on a C-130 Hercules transport, Sentman has not seen a tree worth trimming for some time. This time of year, he normally would be getting ready to plow the sidewalks of Kenmore. It will be a while, too, before he again sees snow.

Instead, he flies almost every day on 12-to-15-hour missions that take him all over Arabia and to military bases as close as eight miles from the Iraqi border. There are endless drifts, all right, but only of fine, powdery sand.

A cold night might be 60 degrees; daytime highs still push 90. The reservists have taken to wearing sweaters or jackets. When they first arrived, temperatures pushed 130, and a thermometer left in a parked aircraft peaked at 175.

Things are better, now. The winds of winter haven't started in earnest, and blowing sand is an occasional thing. The sky even has a few clouds, some days.

Work, eat, write letters, sleep. The routine is as endless as the sand.

"There are four events in every day," said Col. Paul R. Cooper, the 914th's commander. "One of them is mail call. The other three are meals."

In the heat and the sand and the danger and the boredom, the 914th perseveres. It delivers the mail, moves troops, evacuates the sick and injured, moves the materials of war. It gets the job done, better than any other transport unit in the Middle East.

Back home, little David Sentman hopes for an electric train for Christmas. If he gets it, he will use it to haul imaginary cargos around an endless circle of track.

His father will spend a hard week in the desert, marking Christmas, then his birthday and then the day his unit should have flown home.

He will try to call home to break the loneliness. And then he will draw another mission, load and balance his aircraft, and set about hauling real cargo along the endless circles of airways above the desert sands.

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