OSWEGO, N.Y. - The three young sons of Staff Sergeant Carletta Davis did not get to say goodbye to her before she shipped off to Iraq in September. Two months later, Davis was killed by a roadside bomb as her convoy returned from a mission near Kirkuk.
"Those boys didn't get that last hug and kiss, and that's what they'll crave the rest of their lives," said Lavada Napier, Davis's mother.
The day Davis died, the Pentagon reported that the number of US troops killed in Iraq set a record: It was the worst year yet, topping the 849 deaths in 2004. The total so far in 2007 stands at 893.
The record was broken even though the number of military deaths in Iraq has dropped every month since August, down to 37 in November. But 2007 began badly, with 83 deaths in January and more than 100 deaths per month in April, May, and June.
For the Davis family - forever on the move, never quite settled, and never really home - the death of Carletta was a particularly devastating blow. Three brothers in a strange town have lost a loving mother who was gone for much of their lives. A father who had kept his family together while pursuing his career is left to raise his sons in a town where he has few friends.
"She's been gone three-quarters of the time the last few years," said Thomas Davis, Carletta's widower. "I wonder if it's really sinking in that this time she's not coming back."
Thomas and sons Treyton, 14, Theodore, 13, and Tyrique, 8, moved to Oswego because it's near Fort Drum, where Carletta's unit is based.
Thomas, 35, took a job at an Oswego hospital in September and planned to settle down. Carletta, 34, was to rejoin them in December 2008.
Carletta served in Korea, Iraq, and Texas. The Iraq deployment was her third. Because of her Army career and Thomas's training as a physician's assistant, their children enrolled in Oswego - their third school in the past year.
In November, the family flew across the country for a memorial service in Alaska, where Carletta had grown up. In July, instead of a planned family vacation in Hawaii for Carletta's home leave, Thomas and his sons will bury her in Fairbanks, when the summer sun finally melts the frozen earth.
"I read about the deaths in Iraq every day, but it seems like just names and numbers," Thomas said.
"Everybody's sympathetic and offers to help, but I don't know what to tell them. . . . I don't know what I need."
Delayed by his graduation from a medical program at the University of Washington, Thomas and his sons had to rush by car from Washington state to Fort Drum to see Carletta before she shipped out. The military put Carletta on one of the last planes, Thomas said, but the family missed her by less than a day.
Two months later, on Nov. 5, a chaplain and a sergeant visited their home. Thomas said one of his sons called him at work to say "the generals" had visited. Thomas, an Army veteran, hoped it was ROTC cadets raising money. But deep down, he knew.
"It's the knock on the door you never want to come," Thomas said.
Carletta was awarded two air medals, a rare feat, and earned the prestigious combat medical badge. She also earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. She twice received awards for heroism - for rescuing two soldiers who had fallen off a cliff near Fort Lewis, Wash., and for rescuing a wounded Iraqi police officer.
Carletta was the 91st female US military service member to die in Iraq. Two have died since.
"Carletta was the best medic in a company packed with medical professionals," her commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Novak, wrote to Thomas.
Carletta was selected as the lead medic in the brigade commander's personal security detachment - an elite position that often took her away from her fortified base near Kirkuk.
The children had not seen their mother since January, when she went to Texas for military training and their father went to Nome, Alaska, for physician's assistant training. The brothers went to live with their grandmother, Napier, in Fairbanks.
Being away from her family tore at Carletta, said Sergeant Erica Lopez-Brown, a close friend. A few days before she died, Davis spoke to her sons by phone. She asked them for Christmas gift suggestions.
"She said she'd send us some stuffed camels," Theodore said.
Asked what they'd say to their mother now, Treyton said: "I love you, Mom."
Tyrique said: "I'll miss you."
And Theodore said: "You're the best mom in the world."
Thomas said he asked Tyrique whether he knew what had happened to his mother.
"He didn't answer, but he did say before that Mom had died," he said.
Thomas added: "They're having to learn to deal with it - it shows up in the oddest ways."
The other day, he said, Theodore decided to wear his mother's Army fatigues to school.
Over dinner on a recent night, Tyrique blurted out, "Why did Mom have to go back to Iraq?"
His father answered: "In the military, you have to follow orders."
Treyton cut in: "Or else you go to jail."
Tyrique asked: "Did Mom go to the desert to fight?"
"Yes, she did," his father said.
Treyton asked his father whether his mother had been selected for special duty because of her expertise and experience.
"That's right," Thomas said. "She really knew what she was doing."
Treyton said he remembered his mother coming home tired from Army duty.
"Oh, yeah," his father said, "she gave it her all and it wore her out."
After his wife's death, Thomas said, he would not watch TV news or use the Internet to avoid hearing or reading about Iraq.
"I didn't want to believe it," he said. "I didn't want to deal with it."
Thomas said his wife's previous tours in Iraq had given him a false sense of security.
"We'd made it through twice, so I figured it was just another rotation; we'll get through it just fine."
The memorial service helped him come to terms with his grief, Thomas said. Police and firefighters lined up at the Fairbanks airport, where two flag-draped coffins were delivered - the remains of Davis and another soldier killed by the same bomb, Sergeant Derek Stenroos, 24, of tiny North Pole, Alaska. Four Fort Drum soldiers died in the explosion.
With his wife's burial still to come and with mountains of military forms to fill out and sons to raise, Thomas feels overwhelmed. He broke the news to his sons that they weren't buying the house they all had visited; the mortgage approval came the day Carletta died. They were living in a two-bedroom apartment, sleeping on air mattresses.
"Oh, no, we should've got the house," Theodore said.
"Well, how long are you willing to live here?" his father asked. "It's hard to sell a house around here."
Tyrique asked: "Can we at least unpack our beds? I want my bed back."
His father didn't answer. He wasn't certain what they were going to do.
In December, Thomas bought a different house, one he thinks he can sell more easily if they decide to move. The boys unpacked their beds.
Thomas could find work as a physician's assistant in a lot of places.
"I guess the question is, where to now?" he said.
His three sons shrugged.
"We have nowhere to go, really," Thomas said.
What had kept them going was counting the days until Carletta came home in 2008, when they would be a family again, when they would be anchored in a home for more than just a few months.
"That date - December '08 - that date that was so important," Thomas told his sons. "That date doesn't matter anymore."