FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) _ Robert Buffham had to send his children to live with friends. Felix Dean had to learn mothering skills. Other men lament that they can't even go to neighbors for consoling.

They are the spouses of soldiers, and their wives have been sent to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield.

In a reversal of roles from the nation's previous military deployments, many a man has been left behind to raise the children, run the household and deal with the possibility that his wife could be killed in war.

''Their greatest fear has been that Mommy won't come home, that Mommy's already dead,'' said Robert Buffham, husband of Spec. Lona Buffham of the 3rd Armored Cavalry at Fort Bliss.

Buffham, 38, was left to care for children ages 5, 2 1/2 , 1 1/2 and a 7- week-old newborn.

''She had her maternity leave, (but) two days after her maternity leave, they said: 'Hey, let's go. Time to pack up and leave,''' Buffham said Monday.

Although Buffham, a Vietnam veteran, was accustomed to caring for the children and home while his wife pursued her Army career, this latest seperation has been difficult, especially for his oldest son.

''When all this happened all the kids - Aaron mostly - started asking, 'Where's Momma?' And (Aaron) knew that Momma went away. I said, 'Momma's going to Saudi Arabia.

''Then he said: 'I know what's going on there. Mommy won't come back alive.'''

On the advice of a doctor, Buffham sent his children to live with friends who had raised seven children.

''He (Aaron) needed to be with someone with mothering skills. I did not have that much mothering skills,'' Buffham said.

Buffham attends support group meetings on post to discuss problems and exchange suggestions with other male spouses. Fort Bliss' Army Community Services started the group in September to cater to male dependents.

''No matter what happens she knows I'm there. My wife knows my kids are well taken care of, because she knows that's No. 1 in my household,'' said Felix Dean, 33, whose wife, Spec. Beverly Dean is with the 11th Air Defense Artillery.

Dean's poor vision and other disabilities forced him out of the Army, so for years he has been staying at home with his five daughters.

''My friends ask me, 'Did your Dad go to Saudi Arabia?''' said Felicia, 8. ''And I say, 'My Dad didn't go, my Mom did.'''

Mrs. Dean's deployment helped Dean heal a strained relationship with his oldest daughter who now lives in Georgia.

''She called me and talked to me and she talked to me about boys ... Since my wife's been gone, we have grown a bond. We can talk and laugh. I'm there for her because her mom isn't,'' Dean said.

The men say many of the adjustments they are making are not very different from the adjustments wives of soldiers must make, such as living on less income. But there are some distinct differences.

''The wives can always go next door and knock on their neighbors' door and have coffee with them and talk,'' said Scott Chamberlain, 32, at home with five small children. The former Marine's wife, Spec. Brenda Chamberlain, is a cook with the 11th Air Defense Artillery.

''I go next door and it's, 'What do you want?'''

Don Dittsworth, who stays home with Candy, 2, said he avoids visiting female neighbors so he won't be accused of ''hitting up on them.''

His wife, Spec. Cristal Dittsworth, drives an 80-ton tractor trailer and is a member of the 233rd Transportation Co.