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ABCs of a timely R&R

An Army couple get a furlough from Iraq to see a daughter graduate from Hesperia High. Their eldest daughter is raising her sisters in their absence.

June 04, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

The embrace between mother and daughter was brief but satisfying, making them forget the war and distance that had separated them only a week earlier.

For months, Stephanie Delgadillo was on an emotional seesaw, not sure whether her mother, Staff Sgt. Claudia Hernandez-Smith, and stepfather, Staff Sgt. Gary Smith, would be granted leave from their deployments in Iraq in time to attend her graduation from Hesperia High School.

In their absence, Stephanie's older sister, Audrey, now 21, had tended their younger siblings: Grace, 10; Ashley, 5; and Emily, 3. Stephanie had also lived at home until mid-April, when she moved in with her boyfriend after turning 18.

Now, as a sun-splashed afternoon gave way to dusk at the Hyundai Pavilion in Devore this past Thursday, the ovation at the end of the ceremony signaled the culmination of a nearly two-day, knee-aching plane trip that took the parents from Iraq to Kuwait to Scotland to Dallas and finally home.

"I didn't want to miss it," Hernandez-Smith said. "To me, it's like a wedding. They only do it once. It's a big step, and we wanted to make sure we were here."

Nearly a year ago, Hernandez-Smith and her husband 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. The Hesperia couple requested to serve together because Smith, who'd previously done a tour in Iraq, was concerned for his wife's safety during her first deployment.

The deployments prompted a family meeting at which Audrey Delgadillo volunteered to watch over her sisters. The Times chronicled a day in her demanding life in February.

As the months passed, the task grew both harder and easier for Audrey, who recently started taking classes at Victor Valley College in Victorville in hopes of becoming a nurse.

With Stephanie moving out -- saying the demands of pitching in at the house, maintaining a job and earning good grades were overwhelming -- the physical demands on Audrey Delgadillo took a toll. Her back ached. She felt pinches at her hip. Her feet swelled.

There was always trash that needed taking out, dishes to wash, laundry to cycle and baths to draw.

But, still, Audrey doesn't regret the decision to look after her sisters.

"It's no different," Audrey said. "My decision didn't change once Stephanie left. It wasn't a choice she made. It was a choice I made. Mentally, I haven't broken down when they first left. I don't think my body's able to handle all the labor I do around the house, though."

Her fiance, 21-year-old Kenneth Beers, moved in to help out between work shifts at Ontario Mills, and Audrey squeezed in college classes before picking up Ashley and Emily from day care.

Though Ashley and Emily begged to know when their parents were coming home, Audrey kept their pending arrival secret, even when she picked them up at LA/Ontario International Airport on Tuesday.

"They looked at us like they wanted to make sure it was us before they did anything," Hernandez-Smith said of the homecoming. "They didn't run and hug us, it was more like I came to them."

It was Stephanie, working at Baskin-Robbins, who became teary during a surprise reunion.

"I was in the back and going to take out the trash," she said. "I looked at the monitor and saw people dressed in military gear come in. It took a second and then I realized it was them and started crying."

"We still had to pay for our ice cream, though," Smith joked.

In the days before graduation, the family spent time growing reaccustomed to one another. The mother found that Emily had become a chatterbox. Ashley tended to hide her emotions until they came spilling out later. Another daughter, Grace, had become quieter.

She also marveled at how well each responded to Audrey.

"I don't think I could have picked a better person," Hernandez-Smith said. "Even their dad would have had a hard time, because they are all girls."

For the parents, civilian life has also been an adjustment.

"Going to the bathroom and showering in the same place is still weird," Hernandez-Smith said. "Where we work they are separated. There's also so much leisure time here and deciding what you want to do for the day. There, you have your routine of going to work every day for your 12-hour stints."

With her mother and stepfather back, Audrey has stepped back a little, but not much. On a trip to McDonald's, Hernandez-Smith had to call Audrey to ask what the girls eat. And without Audrey, Emily and Ashley's clothes tend to get mixed.

At Stephanie's graduation, Ashley and Emily rotated between Audrey's and their mother's laps. Just before Stephanie's name was called, Smith led Emily to the stage, where she presented her big sister with a lei. Stephanie plans to enroll at Victor Valley College before transferring to Cal State San Bernardino and enlisting in the Navy.

On Thursday, Hernandez-Smith and Smith are due to return to Iraq. During their stay here, they've tried to caution their daughters, especially Ashley and Emily, that this was just a visit and that they would be heading back to war -- "work," they call it when they tell their children -- soon.

Their stint will be over in August or September, but they face the possibility of being redeployed again in two years.

"I know they are in good hands," Hernandez-Smith said of the children. "But it's hard to explain to them why I have to go back. They don't understand why we have to leave."

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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