SHADY HILLS — Vickie Schenk's worst nightmare arrived with a 5:30 a.m. phone call on Aug. 6.
"My heart just stopped when I saw the incoming call said Quantico,'' Schenk said, referring to the Marine Corps headquarters in Virginia.
Her thoughts immediately went to her two sons serving overseas.
"I don't know how many times the phone rang,'' she said. "It was the worst feeling in the world."
The Marines official asked when she'd last talked with her oldest son, Staff Sgt. Dustin R. "Rondy" Harvey, 34, serving in Afghanistan. "My mind went blank. I just didn't know."
Actually, she'd spoken to Rondy just two days before. He told her he had sustained a Grade 2 concussion in an accident but had returned to his unit. The Marine officer was calling to report that incident.
"It's little things like that that can make you crazy," Schenk said.
For Schenk, it has become something of a way of life in recent years. Her sons Rondy and Cpl. Jace Schenk, 23, are each serving in their third tour of duty overseas. Jace is now in Iraq.
As any mother would, Schenk, 57, worries constantly about her sons' safety and welfare. She shares her feelings on a website, darkmoonbengals.com (click on heroes), where she writes of counting months, moons and days till her sons come home. Of praying, dreaming, leaning on family.
It wasn't until he read her words that Rondy fully appreciated the toll the deployments are taking on her. Her sacrifice has aged her tremendously, he wrote to Linda Kidwell, founder of Gifts from Home in Hernando County.
"Living through six deployments of her two sons has been hard on her, but she never complains,'' Kidwell said.
"I am sure she is not the only one,'' Rondy wrote. "All of (the mothers') sacrifices should be aired because of what they have to battle with while we are gone."
"It's not about the war," Kidwell added. "It's our own neighbors' kids."
Schenk, who works as a veterinary assistant at Spring Hill Animal Hospital, keeps busy maintaining a private enterprise of breeding Bengal cats, a domesticated feline with African roots, at her home in Shady Hills.
But her warrior sons are never far from her thoughts.
"They are tough,'' she said. "They have been mentally tough. People here, we have no clue the things they have to do, the things they're expected to do.
"I've always told the boys to do what you have to do, then bring yourselves home safely."
There are those who note that military personnel volunteer knowing they could be away from home and deployed into harm's way.
"We understand (they) have a job to do," Schenk acknowledged.
One of their duties appears to be keeping their families upbeat.
"There are a lot of things they keep from me because they don't want me to worry," she said.
She recalled talking on the computer with Jace one day when he was in the Green Zone, a protected enclave for government officials in Baghdad.
"He'd holler, 'Wait, wait, wait,' and we'd hear the bombs coming in. You just sort of hold your breath and wait for him to come back on the computer." He did.
Jace is due to be discharged next month, and he will return somewhat battered with "a bad knee, shoulder, elbow, ankle," his mother said.
"He has had back surgery. Everything has been injured. He's just worn down."
Jace so far has escaped life-threatening injuries.
"They have the best body armament," his mother said.
But some of the wear and tear comes from carrying around 100 pounds of that armor and weapons daily in the scorching heat.
Over the years, Jace's military duties have included guarding prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba, teaching fellow Marines martial arts, serving on an anti-terrorist squad and now on the ground in Iraq.
Rondy has been an assault amphibian section leader in the Iraqi hot spot of Fallujah. He's also served in the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Farah.
At one point, the Marines' commanding officers arranged for them to meet on foreign soil. It was a special treat for them both, Schenk said.
"They are brothers in blood,'' she said, "and brothers in arms by choice."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.