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Adrift after Mom's death in Iraq

In an unfamiliar town, Carletta Davis' family awaited her return. Now her husband and boys don't know what's next.

December 25, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

OSWEGO, N.Y. — The three young sons of Staff Sgt. Carletta Davis did not get to say goodbye to her before she shipped off to Iraq in September. Two months later, Carletta was killed by a roadside bomb as her convoy returned from a mission near Kirkuk on Nov. 5.

"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, Carletta's mother.

The day Carletta Davis died, the Pentagon reported that the number of American troops killed in Iraq set an unwelcome record as the worst year yet, topping the 849 deaths in 2004. The total so far this year stands at 894.

The record came 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 boys 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 a medical 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 husband. "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 Ft. Drum, the base for Carletta's unit. Thomas Davis, 35, took a job at an Oswego hospital in September and planned to settle down. His wife was to rejoin them in December 2008.

Carletta, 34, served in Korea, Iraq and Texas. The Iraq deployment was her third in the country. Because of her Army career and Thomas' training as a physician's assistant, the boys enrolled here in their third school in the last year.

Last month, the family flew across the country for a memorial service in Alaska, where Carletta grew 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, Alaska, 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. "When it happens to you, it's personal.

"Everybody's sympathetic and offers to help, but I don't know what to tell them," he said. "I don't know what I need."

Delayed by his graduation from a medical program at the University of Washington, Thomas and his sons rushed by car from Washington state to Ft. Drum to try 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, the boys were visited at home by a chaplain and sergeant. One of the boys called Thomas 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 down a cliff near Ft. Lewis, Wash., and for rescuing a wounded Iraqi police officer.

Carletta was the 91st female U.S. service member to die in Iraq. Two more have died since.

"Carletta was the best medic in a company packed with medical professionals," her commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Novak, wrote to her husband. 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 boys 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 boys went to live with their grandmother Napier in Fairbanks.

Being away from her family tore at Carletta, said Sgt. 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 had 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."

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