COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Joshua Carrasco got braces this year and his younger brother was the fastest boy on his school's cross-country team. Their little sister, whose front teeth are still growing in, picked out carnations for their mom's 40th birthday.
"There's things he's missing out on that he will never get back," his wife, Donna, said.
This Thanksgiving, the Carrascos are among the families of some 6,000 Fort Carson soldiers who are spending the holiday in Iraq.
Joshua, 14, and Joseph, 12, say they're used to Dad being gone for long periods of time, though Joseph said he wishes his dad could be home for his birthday next month. Gabrielle, 7, has deserted her pink bedroom to sleep with her mom, in Dad's spot in the bed.
"I get hugs from my kids," Donna Carrasco said. "I just feel like he's the one that's paying the ultimate sacrifice. He's the one who's away from us, and so I don't have the right to complain or feel sorry for myself."
Nearly 2,100 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 as of Tuesday. Sixty-three were from Manuel Carrasco's regiment.
At 41, he could have retired by now. He came home from one tour in Iraq in March 2004 and submitted retirement papers, but the Army didn't approve them as part of its stop-loss actions designed to extend enlistments. Donna Carrasco learned on Valentine's Day that her husband was heading back to Iraq. He deployed the following month.
Since he's been gone, Donna Carrasco has picked a school for the children — they were home-schooled until this year — and for the first time got a job outside their home. Besides investing in properties, she now is a receptionist and bookkeeper at a day spa and salon.
"He's going to come home to a different home," she says.
Donna and Manuel Carrasco met at her apartment complex in Phoenix, where he was the security guard who scared off someone who had been following her. When he proposed over pizza two years later, he was so nervous she thought he had food poisoning.
In 16 years of marriage, Donna Carrasco estimates she and her husband have been apart for roughly half that.
"I'm not going to say every day is easy because that would be a lie, but with the support from family, friends, community, Fort Carson, it's not been that difficult," she says.
Each day her alarm goes off at 4:25 a.m. She makes the kids a hot breakfast and their lunches. Then she takes the kids to school, goes to the gym around 7 a.m., then to work, then back to pick up the kids, and is home around 4:30 p.m.
Joshua, Joseph and Gabrielle help with chores like laundry, cleaning up after dinner and looking after the two dogs, a cat and a hamster before doing homework. Each night, Gabrielle reads her mom a bedtime story. A stack of her books line the floor next to the bed.
It's the days off that are hardest.
"Holidays are difficult, like Christmas," Carrasco says. "I can already tell you what I'm dreading is the Christmas tree. I hate putting up the Christmas tree. ... There's a void. I'm not looking forward to that void."
On Thanksgiving, Manuel Carrasco probably won't be able to call home.
"He'll let the other soldiers call. I've had to learn that," Carrasco says. "I remember a time when we first got married, I wondered if he loved his country more than me. It was really a slap-in-the-face reality. And I realized it's not that he loves his country more than me. He has a duty, he's been called."
Then there are the times when Sgt. Carrasco makes his presence felt from thousands of miles away. For his wife's birthday on Nov. 13, he sent envelopes for each child with cash — and directions. Joshua's envelope told him to take the family to Donna Carrasco's favorite Japanese restaurant.
Joseph and Gabrielle were to pick a cake, and Gabrielle was supposed to get her mother's favorite flowers, carnations. Then, Carrasco told the kids to take the batteries out of the fire alarm and get a fire extinguisher before they put 40 candles on their mother's cake.
"It was a wonderful birthday, and my husband played such a big role in that. And he wasn't even here," Donna Carrasco said.
The Carrascos have spent other special occasions apart. The difference is that this time, Carrasco knows her husband's military career is winding down. He is due to retire in November 2006, with 21 years of service.
"It's kind of scary about what our future holds for us, but I'm looking forward to him being home. Home on the evenings, home on the weekends," she says.
"The holidays that we're not together," she says, "make the holidays that we're together even better."