When she was 7 and her brothers were 5 and 3, their mother pulled up to a convenience store, shooed them out and called their father to come get them.

Clearly, their mother wanted nothing to do with them. And it was just as clear to young Monica Velez that as the older sister, she would take care of her brothers. She would make sure they knew they were loved and wanted.

While their father worked long hours as a police officer, the sister took on the mother's role, always fussing after the boys, dressing them and making sure they were fed.

They spent afternoons playing hide-and-seek and Army in a West Texas cotton field. They were inseparable: Monica, Freddy and Andrew.

Monica, now 27, still remembers the three of them dancing on the bed. She laughs when she recalls the day Freddy flipped a three-wheeler on top of his brother. Before tending to him, he came inside to eat a tortilla.

How was it possible that she could lose them both?

They were her baby brothers, the boys she adored. She devoted so much time to them that she never even wanted children of her own.

The brothers followed each other into the Army. Freddy first, then Andrew.

They came home that way, too. Freddy, then Andrew.

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Born Jose Alfredo, Freddy was the kind of baby you could put down in one place and he wouldn't move. But sit Andrew down, said their father, Roy Velez, and he'd be crawling all over the place.

Monica always saw them almost as twins. They had their own little laughs and smirks and secrets between them. She called it their "code."

Freddy was more quiet, the thinker, the team player. Andrew, leaner and more athletic, could be cocky and that got him into fights that forced Freddy to stand up for him.

The brothers were devoted to their sister, doing everything she suggested. If Monica said the sky was purple, they believed her.

Things began to change when Roy Velez remarried. His new wife, Carmen Velez, took in the children as if they were her own. It was a tough adjustment, but the boys took to Carmen.

It took Monica longer. She was so used to playing the mother.

When she was 15, she called a meeting with her brothers. She wasn't getting along with their father and stepmother and wanted to move out and live with a friend in town. Freddy agreed with her, but not Andrew.

"I remember when I was walking out the door and he cried and said, 'Please don't leave me.' That was probably the biggest mistake of my life was to walk away," Monica said.

Their father says the boys spent many nights praying and crying for Monica to return.

To make sure her brothers didn't think she had abandoned them, she wrote them letters or cards every day, always giving guidance.

The brothers became closer than ever — though Andrew resented it when Freddy, in his junior year, started dating Nickie Janssen. Freddy and Nickie spent almost every free moment together, and they planned to marry.

At Estacado High School in Lubbock, Freddy was an honor student who wanted to be a paramedic or forensic pathologist. He had been accepted to Texas Tech University, but when a military recruiter came to the high school, he was interested. Always the protector, he saw it as a way to help people, like when he worked as a lifeguard. He thought he could be an Army medic.

Shortly after high school graduation in 2000, Freddy headed off to basic training.

He was a hard act to follow — so personable, likable, a hit with teachers. Andrew worried about measuring up.

"I'm never going to be as good as Fred," Andrew told his sister.

It's not that Andrew wasn't as well-liked or smart. He was just different. He loved to cook and clean house and was crazy for the Denver Broncos. As much as he wanted to be like Freddy, Andrew also wanted to find his own path.

By the time Freddy left, Andrew had fallen in love, too — with his 16-year-old classmate, Veronica Guajardo.

Soon she was pregnant, and with his father's permission, he dropped out of high school, got his GED and married Veronica. Two more children followed.

Freddy and Nickie married in 2002.

Freddy was based at Fort Hood, part of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, nicknamed Ghost Battalion. His was a tank and a Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle unit.

Just as she had studied up on wrestling moves and football plays so she would know what her brothers were doing during matches and games, Monica now read all about the 2-7 Cav, visited the base and asked to see a Humvee and a Bradley.

No one ever expected much of the three Velez siblings, she thought, and now Freddy was marching off to war. She was proud when Freddy was deployed to Iraq in March of 2004 — but she was worried, too.

Don't be a hero, warned the devoted sister, who already had another reason to be concerned: Andrew had followed his brother into the Army the year before.

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By November 2004, 23-year-old Freddy was operating in Fallujah, 43 miles west of Baghdad. It was the beginning of a ferocious battle for the city, and his unit conducted door-to-door searches and bomb sweeps and checked out intelligence reports. Freddy's job was to provide cover fire if the others came under attack.

Freddy was the soldier you wanted to be next to in war — loyal, ready to do anything asked of him, but also goofy, loved for his antics. Once he challenged team leader Akram Abdelwahab, known as Abe, to a race between Abe's car and Freddy's motorcycle, which promptly ran out of gas.

On Nov. 13, Ghost Battalion was checking out a house. Abe, the point man, and another soldier went inside. Then, boom. An ambush in the kitchen. A grenade blast snapped Abe's right leg in two places and ripped four inches of bone from his arm.

Freddy was outside. Crack, crack, crack — a sniper fired from another building.

Bullets tore through Freddy's body.

Somehow, Abe made it outside, and suddenly Freddy was sprawled across his legs.

Even in the fog of war, Abe heard Freddy take six or seven breaths. They were his last.

When the news reached the family, Monica and Nickie were together. Monica was so distraught that the military officers thought she was the wife. Blackness surrounded her and she couldn't breathe. Her mind flashed back to memories of teaching Freddy to brush his teeth and comb his hair, of putting him on the school bus.

Andrew got word of his brother's death while stationed in Kuwait. He picked up a large tool and tore down a shed with it.

Talking to his sister on the phone, he couldn't speak at first, but then he began to scream. He screamed for a long time.

Still, just as Freddy had done so many times for him, Andrew took care of his brother. He escorted him home, talking all the way to Freddy's body, packed in ice.

His sister and father tried to get him to talk about Freddy's death and what he was feeling. But Andrew locked up.

"I knew that there was something so deep inside of him, that he would never open up about," Roy Velez said.

As the sole surviving son in the family, Andrew had the option of not returning to combat. Instead, he told his family he wanted to finish what Freddy started.

But Monica knew he wasn't ready.

He couldn't sleep at night and talked about how Freddy looked before and after the autopsy. Once, he turned up in an alley, disoriented and not making sense.

Just weeks after Freddy's death, on Dec. 6, 2004, Andrew e-mailed his sister: "Keep your head up and keep fighting just like Freddy cause that is what I am going to do until I die just like him 'cause I want to be one day as strong as him just like he wanted to be strong like Daddy."

Two weeks later, he e-mailed Monica from Fort Irwin, Calif., where he was based.

"I still can't believe that he is gone. I have these (expletive) dreams about seeing him in that box. There is a lot of (expletive) I'm trying to sort out. ... He was my hero — I always looked up to that guy. I just don't want him to be gone."

Andrew was dealing with marital trouble, too, Monica said. (Veronica Velez refused to comment for this story.)

He started having flashbacks to the war and hallucinated that Veronica and their three children were soldiers, Monica said.

He called his sister from Fort Irwin and said he visited a chaplain a few times, but it didn't help. And the Army, he said, asked him stupid questions about returning to combat.

"The things that I've done, I'm not the same," he told his sister. "At first, you're scared to do it, to kill somebody and then you just do it. And then you start noticing you enjoy it. And you try to find as many as you can and kill as many as you can. Then you come home and see your kids and you think — how could I do that?"

In February 2006, Andrew was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan. The Army said Andrew was given a mental health assessment and did not indicate he needed any help.

He was part of a unit that maintained tanks, but also did a lot of guard work and was dispatched on missions.

Monica kept up her mothering ways, constantly asking him to check his gear. He promised he would.

"I can never forget how beautiful you are to me and how much you mean to me. You have been the best sister I could have," Andrew wrote her in a Feb. 25 e-mail from Afghanistan. "You have never let me down and always been there for me and Fred. You took care of us and I will never forget how much you sacrificed for us. You are always in my heart and I will always be with you."

A few months passed. Monica, still concerned, proposed arranging for Andrew to be reassigned to Fort Hood. Come home, she said; the two of them could share an apartment while he and Veronica worked on their problems.

Andrew responded that he'd get the paperwork together for a request. Monica started looking for a place.

"You always take care of me," he told his sister. "You always have my back."

But a sister's love was not enough.

On July 25, inside an office building in Sharona, Afghanistan, 22-year-old Andrew slipped the muzzle of a M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon into his mouth. He pulled the trigger.

His death is under investigation.

The brothers were buried at the bottom of a small hill at Resthaven Memorial Park in Lubbock. Freddy's wife gave up her plot so Freddy and Andrew could rest side by side, the way they would have wanted it — together, just as in life.

Sometimes Monica lies down between her brothers and waits for that feeling to come, when she knows they are with her. For so many years she had guided them, helped and comforted them, made sure they never felt abandoned.

And now she's the one who's left behind.