HESPERIA, CALIF. — The sun has barely crested over the stark Granite Mountains and Audrey Delgadillo is already scurrying around her house.
The 20-year-old dashes outside to warm the engine of the family's dusty Ford Taurus, stirs her two youngest sisters out of bed, picks up toys in the living room and checks the bedroom of her other two sisters to make sure they've left for school.
It's been Delgadillo's morning routine ever since her mother and stepfather were sent to Iraq, leaving her to look after her four little sisters — Stephanie, 17, Grace, 10, Ashley, 4, and Emily, 3.
Just before summer, Sgt. Claudia Hernandez-Smith and Sgt. Gary Smith were deployed with a Black Hawk helicopter division of the Army's 131st Aviation Regiment stationed at Balad Air Base, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
"I have always known that I could be taken away from them," Hernandez-Smith, a helicopter mechanic for the unit, said during a live computer chat from Iraq. "But knowing that she was there made it that much easier to cope with."
The Hesperia couple requested to serve together, and the Army, under its recently implemented simultaneous deployment program for married couples, was happy to oblige. So far, 1,712 people have requested to be considered for joint deployment with their spouses.
"The bottom line is that as long as the soldiers requesting simultaneous deployment have a family-care plan in place, there is not an issue with having both members deployed at the same time," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin V. Arata. "It's just a process of better serving our soldiers. If the husband and wife are together, they are going to be happier."
Delgadillo, tiny and tomboyish with wire-rimmed glasses, readily admits that, at times, she feels robbed. She spends precious little time with her fiance or going out with friends. Instead, it's a daily grind of cleaning, cooking and shopping.
"This is something that I asked for and wanted to do," Delgadillo said. "But sometimes I feel like I grew up too fast. Sometimes, I feel like I missed out."
On a recent Wednesday, Delgadillo drops Ashley and Emily off at day care, where she discusses a potty training strategy with their teacher, Carol Dyson.
She returns home and checks her list of chores scribbled in her notebook. Some errands are already crossed out.
Clean my room. Mop. Pay house bills. Get oil changes for the Ford and Saturn. Send out mom's package. Put drawer together. Clean frontyard.
First, she picks up pieces of a "Little Mermaid" jigsaw puzzle scattered across the living room floor.
A picture of her mother and stepfather hangs on the living room's foyer. He is in his Army regalia, she in a sleek black dress.
"I told my mom, 'Don't ever feel like you put this on me,' " Delgadillo says. "It was my decision, and we knew since she joined the Army that one day she was going to be called."
That call came last April.
Her mother, an Army Reservist for the last decade, was working with the Census Bureau in Azusa. Her stepfather, a helicopter crew chief, had just returned from more than a yearlong tour in Iraq.
There was never any doubt that Sgt. Hernandez-Smith would answer the call, but her husband also wanted to return for his wife's first tour of duty. She left that April; he followed three months later.
"We as a family decided that I should go with her to try and help her with being away from the girls," Smith said. "Plus, I was worried for her safety and wanted to keep an eye out for her."
With the cleaning done, Delgadillo hops in the Taurus for a trip to the bank before heading to Target. A good chunk of her mother and stepfather's checks are forwarded to her, and most of the bills are handled through automated bill-pay.
At Target, she buys party favors for an upcoming party at the girls' day-care center and goodies for a care package for her parents in Iraq — popcorn, hot cocoa and hair products.
Making time for a fiance too After her parents left, Delgadillo quit her job as a teller at Bank of America. She sneaks out a night or two each week for a dinner date with her fiance, Kenneth Beers, while Stephanie watches the girls.
"In the beginning, it was stressful," Beers said, who popped the question on Delgadillo's 18th birthday. "I've never been in a relationship with younger kids around before, but you learn to manage your time."
For the first six months her parents were gone, Delgadillo looked after Ashley and Emily the entire day — they were still on a waiting list for the day-care center.
"Believe me, that was terrible," Delgadillo said, grinning. "We all have chores. I do just about everything, but I refuse to wash dishes. Stephanie does the dishes, laundry on weekends. Grace feeds the dogs and takes out the trash. Ashley and Emily make the mess."
Their maternal grandmother, who also lives in Hesperia, sometimes helps out with the younger girls to give Delgadillo a breather. Delgadillo and Stephanie's biological father lives in Mexico and has had little contact with the sisters.
Delgadillo was born in East Los Angeles, but the family moved a lot, especially after her mother married Smith a decade ago. The military family was stationed in Hawaii and Newport News, Va., before settling in Hesperia.
Though she is barely into her 20s, Delgadillo says her wild days are over. Her lip and nose are pierced, and her seven tattoos — many scrawled in Tibetan script — all are easily hidden beneath her clothes.
She was a baby-sitter for her sisters when she was younger — a duty that made this transition much easier.
The girls each reacted differently when their parents first left. Grace turned inward, not talking much. Ashley had nightmares and would occasionally find her way to the bed of one of her sisters. Emily's eyes frequently welled with tears when talking with her mother on the phone.
"They ask for Mom and say, 'I miss Dad,' " Delgadillo said. "But all I can say is that I miss them too and they'll be back in a while."
A fear of missed moments Stephanie, a senior at Hesperia High, is worried her parents will miss crowning moments of her young life — checking out colleges, attending the prom and graduation.
"I want them to be here," said Stephanie, an ROTC member who is contemplating a future in the Army or Navy. "They requested their rest and relaxation for my graduation, but I'm not sure if they are going to get it. It's kind of a bummer."
Holidays without their parents have been rough. On Thanksgiving, Delgadillo cooked a big meal for the family, and the reality of the situation kicked in.
"That was the one time I really just lost it and started crying," Delgadillo said. "They sent a Thanksgiving e-mail of them eating dinner in a cafeteria, and I don't know . It just looked so cold."
In late January, 12 U.S. troops were killed in a helicopter crash northeast of Baghdad. Her stepfather called later that day to assure her he wasn't among them — although he was in a helicopter just four miles from the crash.
"That was the only time I really worried," Delgadillo says. "But my mom is safe as can be. She doesn't leave the base at all."
After returning from Target, Delgadillo plops on the living room couch to watch television. A television news report about a Baghdad car bombing comes on, and she quickly changes channels. Another Iraq report. She flips channels again.
Stephanie comes home from school, and Delgadillo starts assembling the care package to be sent to Iraq. As the sun begins its arc down over this desert town, she rushes to pick up Emily and Ashley from day care.
The family of sisters sits down for dinner and gathers around the TV to watch an Animal Planet special on wolves. Afterward, Delgadillo coaxes Emily and Ashley into bed, a nightly battle of wills that can last two hours.
The girls say Delgadillo is more lenient than their mother. But if anyone messes up, Iraq is only an e-mail away.
"My mom is still the law in this house," Delgadillo says.
"She's just far away. The only difference is that now she does her yelling in all caps."