When Mom and Dad Go to War

updated 03/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/05/2007 AT 01:00 AM EST

With her parents away, it's no easy task for Audrey Delgadillo to get her four sisters, ages 3 to 17, through the witching hour and then down for bed. The older two procrastinate "and fight with me," she says. For the youngest, the big chore is brushing teeth: "I repeat myself over and over: Do it this way, do it this way." By the time she finally tucks the two littlest girls into their matching child-size beds, "I'm so exhausted I fall asleep trying to read to them," she says.

Still, Audrey, 20, won't be any less tired tomorrow, or the day after that. That's because her parents won't be back for another seven months; they're both stationed at Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad, with a Black Hawk helicopter division within the Army's 131st Aviation Regiment.

This past April Sgt. Claudia Hernandez-Smith, 38, mother of five and an Army reservist for the past 12 years, received the call to Iraq; two months later her husband, Sgt. Gary Smith, 32, who had just returned from a 14-month tour there, chose to return with her. "My mom had never been away from us, and my stepfather didn't want her to go to Iraq by herself," says Audrey. Adds Smith, a helicopter crew chief: "I was worried for Claudia's safety, and I wanted to help her with being gone from the girls. We as a family decided that I should join Claudia."

As such, the Smiths were in the vanguard of a growing trend: Today some 856 military service couples have requested postings under revised Army regulations that now permit joint deployment overseas for married couples. And though they've tried to help their family from afar—arranging for automatic bill payments, for example—that has still left Audrey squarely in charge of Stephanie, 17, Grace, 10, Ashley, 4, and Emily, 3, at the family's four-bedroom house in Hesperia, Calif. Even though her daughter offered to take over at home, "My first reaction was not to let her, because I didn't want her to carry such a burden," says Hernandez-Smith. "But she's really stepped up to the plate. I trust her 100 percent."

Even so, no one minimizes the task taken on by Audrey, who recently quit her training as a bank teller and now has legal guardianship of the kids. Every weekday morning she's up at 6 to begin a day juggling daycare, potty training and doctors' appointments. She grocery-shops, attends community college two days a week and makes sure she's home every night to put a meal on the table ("She makes really good broccoli-stuffed chicken," says Grace). "I don't see what I'm doing as any huge deal," says Audrey, who has nine tattoos—the newest, on her wrist, reads SAGE, for her sisters' initials—and a pierced lip. "This is my family, I'm the oldest, this is my responsibility."

What guidance she gets is limited to e-mails and a weekly 20-minute phone call from her folks overseas; her fiancé, Kenneth Beers, 21, who works at a jewelry store, also lends a hand. But in the toughest moments, Audrey is on her own. Not long after her parents left, "The girls cried at random times, saying they missed Mommy and Daddy—especially if I was mad at them for something," she says. "I tell them Mommy and Daddy are at work for a long time and will be back in a few months."

She does her best to compensate for her parents' absence. At Halloween she and Beers staged a pumpkin-carving contest; for Emily's third birthday, she invited all the kids from her daycare center; and at Christmastime she made sure the family had its first-ever real evergreen tree. "I try to make things just a little more extravagant so the kids won't miss their parents," she says.

But the caregiving takes its toll. Though she maintains a stoic front, Audrey admits, "Sometimes I wish I weren't so mature for my age, and I do wish I could sleep in sometimes and that I didn't have so much to worry about. I can have fun, but I don't act like a 20-year-old. Too many people depend on me."

For the most part, the kids seem to be doing well. Stephanie, who's in the ROTC program at her local high school, maintains a 4.0 grade point average; Grace, a bookworm, is in accelerated English and math classes. But Audrey cannot be a stand-in parent every time one is needed. "I want my mom here to help me pick out my prom dress and decide on colleges," says Stephanie. And when Emily says, "My mommy is gone. She went to work," it's a sign that she is missing her mother.

It is during those times that Audrey proves that bravery is not something found only on a faraway battlefield. "I concentrate on what I have to do around the house and keep myself occupied," she says softly. "I have to stay strong for the girls."

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