Hunkered under her desk at Camp Cropper, near the Baghdad airport, Staff Sgt. Papsy Lemus heard the flying mortar—a sound "like sizzling bacon"—and prayed: "God, please not me; not today. My girls are too young."

It wasn't her time. And now, a year after Lemus, 31, deployed as a supply clerk with Utah's Army National Guard, she's home in suburban Salt Lake City, with her husband, Omar, and daughters Griselda, 8, and Nancy, 4. Feeling for the first time in her life like a real soldier—"I now feel I've earned people's compliments," she says—Lemus is back to cooking, carpooling and calling time outs. "It's hard," she admits. "I've gone from having no kids, no cooking, no laundry ... by the time I hit the pillow at night, I'm zonked."

That everyday exhaustion, however, is nothing like what she felt in Iraq: The anxiety that made her bolt out of bed at the slightest sound, the sadness offering a final salute as a fallen soldier's casket was loaded onto a plane, the question, always lurking: Would she see her kids again? She befriended another female soldier who, like herself, had left children behind. "We became each other's shoulders to cry on," she says.

Staying in touch through letters, instant messaging and Webcam, she was proud to get upbeat reports from Omar but wondered what her role upon returning would be. "One of my biggest fears," she says, "was that they'd moved on and wouldn't need me. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I saw that wasn't true." Not to mention the first time she glimpsed Nancy's room: "It was upside-down," Lemus recalls. "I found wrappers of Go-GURT, Ramen, an old slice of pizza."

She is needed in other ways too. Griselda, especially, had a year of upheaval. "She went from being very athletic to nothing; she gave up soccer, which she loves, because no one could take her," Lemus says. (Omar, 30, a corrections officer, works from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the county jail.) Griselda also got into scrapes at school and once swiped $300 from Omar's wallet. These days, when Lemus scolds Nancy, Griselda comforts her sister. "She's tried to fill in for me, take on that second-mother role," Lemus says. "It makes me proud but upset; this stole from her childhood."

An ex-Marine and Lemus's California high school sweetheart, Omar admits this boot camp was tougher than he ever imagined. "I was overwhelmed with everything I had to do," he says, "and having girls made it harder." All that stuff—braiding hair, playing Tooth Fairy, nursing a sick kid through a fever—was Lemus's job. And now she is here, to make everything better, coif, help with homework and take Griselda to soccer or out shopping. She also revived a predeployment tradition: bedtime prayers in English and Spanish. "They pray to their guardian angel: 'Protect me and come with me everywhere ... never leave me by myself.'" On that note Lemus has a prayer of her own. Now in the Active Guard Reserve four days a week, she could be up for redeployment in 2011. "So, I keep praying that the war ends," she says, "and no more start."