NEW BERLIN, Wis. – With three daughters serving in Iraq, John and Lori Witmer had a family Web site with photos from Baghdad (search), notes to home and messages of encouragement.
"Keep praying! They're almost home!" a recent entry says.
But the top notice, dated Sunday, carried grim news: "We regret to inform you that Michelle Witmer was killed in action April 9th ...."
The 20-year-old private died when her Humvee was ambushed in Baghdad, making her the first woman in the Wisconsin National Guard (search) to die in combat.
Her family is asking the military to stop her sisters from being sent back to Iraq after this week's funeral.
"I can't live another year like I've lived this one," John Witmer told The Associated Press. "The sacrifice that this family's made can never be understood by someone who hasn't gone through it... It's a burden I can't bear. My family can't bear it."
Michelle's 24-year-old sister, Rachel, served in the same unit, the 32nd Military Police Company (search), which was expected to leave Iraq shortly but just had its duty extended 120 days.
Charity Witmer, Michelle's twin, was sent to Iraq late last year as a medic with Company B of the Wisconsin Guard's 118th Medical Battalion.
The surviving sisters were expected home Monday, two days before Michelle's funeral. The Witmers also have two sons.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Curry said Defense Department (search) policy states that if a soldier dies while serving in a hostile area, other soldiers of the same family are exempt from serving in a hostile area if they request. The request must come from the soldiers themselves.
John Witmer acknowledged the final decision of whether to return will be up to his daughters. But he said they would have to understand "how terribly we need to know they're not going back."
Witmer said he worried about his daughters joining the military but felt at the time that duty with the National Guard would be relatively safe, especially with a military police unit.
"My daughters wanted the freedom of being able to call their shots with their education," he said. "They were using that to go to school."
Asked on NBC's "Today" whether U.S. actions in Iraq were justified, Witmer said it was a difficult issue to sort out, but he recalled daughter Michelle's comments.
"She felt that she had made a difference in that culture and that there was a liberation that went on," he said. "She was also very concerned that if we had a knee-jerk reaction to some of these horrible things that were happening, that thousands of Iraqi people would suffer from a swift exit."
Jan Pretzel, the sisters' grandmother, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that by February, Michelle had an inkling her unit might soon ship out of Iraq because members were told to tell their families to stop shipping packages.
"This is a REALLY GOOD SIGN!!" she wrote in an e-mail. "The redeployment process (though it may be long) is finally beginning! There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel!"