- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2001

As Americans stay close to home and cancel well-laid travel plans, Arlington County resident and Red Cross worker Jana Zehner boarded a military plane yesterday afternoon for Kuwait.

Since spring, Mrs. Zehner has been part of a two-person team to help about 10,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf keep in touch with family back home, as part of the American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services group.

But returning to the small, oil-rich country — which borders Saudi Arabia and was liberated in 1991 by the United States during the Gulf war after being invaded by its northern neighbor, Iraq — seems a bit more perilous now that America has vowed to ferret out terrorists responsible for the attacks last Tuesday on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Army, Navy and Air Force personnel in Kuwait are the closest American armed forces contingent to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind last week's attacks, is being harbored. Kuwait is about 1,300 miles from Afghanistan.

That puts Mrs. Zehner in the mouth of the lion, she acknowledges, but she says she has "a duty" to help those men and women stay in contact with their loved ones, especially during a time of war.

"I have a commitment to those troops and if something God forbid happens, that's when I am needed most," said Mrs. Zehner, 32, an Arlington resident.

Yesterday at 6 p.m., she boarded a military plane destined for the Middle Eastern country. That was the only flight she could find, since all commercial air traffic was effectively shut down after attacks a week ago today.

Mrs. Zehner has been with the Red Cross for five years and had just come home for a three-week break on Aug. 19, hoping to spend time with her husband, Pentagon worker and Air Force Maj. Greg Zehner, 34. She will return from this trip in December, just before Christmas.

"Certainly, I am a little concerned," she said about going to one of the hot spots of the world.

Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for the group Mrs. Zehner works with, said it is expected that Red Cross workers will respond in times of need, and Mrs. Zehner is just one example.

"The people who are with us really want to help," Miss Alexander said.

Through postal mail, e-mail, phone calls and teleconferences, Miss Alexander said, the Red Cross workers help keep about 35,000 families a month in touch. In fact, one of the most important tasks — letting military personnel know of family emergencies — is grounded in the foundation of the American Red Cross, when Clara Barton sent dispatches to families of soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War.

Maj. Zehner, who is sworn to defend the United States, said his wife, like himself, feels that she must be there with the military, even if it means she is in harm's way.

"I don't think it is defiance" of terrorism, rather "it's just an act of duty," Maj. Zehner said, echoing the words of his wife.

Since Jana Zehner was originally scheduled to leave for Kuwait Thursday, her husband had taken time off from work to spend time with her. That meant he was home instead of at the Pentagon when the attack occurred.

And because her flight was called off, Mrs. Zehner helped serve meals and provide assistance to the victims and rescuers at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Leaving the attack site, she said, will be hard because she is also leaving behind others she could help.

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