Most of Simone and Vaughn Holcomb's seven children are too young to understand everything that's happened to their family in the past 10 months.
First, both of their parents left Fort Carson to fight a war half a world away, in Iraq -- leaving the children, ranging in ages from 4 to 12, in the care of Vaughn's mother.
Then, in September, two of the children became the subjects of a custody battle involving Vaughn's ex-wife. Shortly after, Vaughn's mother had to return home to Ohio to look after her husband, who has cancer.
The turmoil caused some of the children to experience nightmares and depression.
"The family was falling apart," Simone recalled during a recent interview.
Last month, an El Paso County judge ruled it was in the children's best interest to live with Simone, who, along with her husband, had come home from Iraq on emergency leave to attend custody hearings.
But the Army National Guard disagrees.
Ordered to return
The Guard says Simone Holcomb, a specialist with the 109th Area Support Medical Battalion, should be redeployed to Iraq.
That would leave the children without anyone to care for them, Simone says. Her husband, a sergeant in the Army's Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, is already back in action along the Iraq-Syria border, where he is involved in skirmishes almost daily.
Tough, says the National Guard. In a series of e-mail messages last month, the military ordered Simone Holcomb to return to Iraq as well. After she failed to follow the orders, her commanders notified her that she was about to be kicked out of the service and prosecuted as a deserter.
Simone says the National Guard's threats placed her in a Catch-22.
"It's against the law to abandon your children," she said. "I don't have anywhere for them to go."
She recently sought help from state Rep. Mike Merrifield and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, whose staff has referred the matter to the Army Inspector General for investigation.
"It does sound like it's an extraordinary circumstance," said Dick Wadhams, a spokesman for Allard. "We're trying to do everything we can for them, but it's ultimately in the hands of the Army."
I believe in this country'
Simone Holcomb says it's not as if she were trying to get out of serving in the war. In fact, she says she asked to be sent to Iraq when troops began mobilizing in January.
Simone had served in the Guard for six years and was trained as a combat medic, but she had never seen actual combat. While she disagreed with the reasons for the U.S. invasion, she wanted a chance to save soldiers' lives on the battlefield.
"This is what I want to do," she told herself. "This is what I joined the Army for."
Knowing that Vaughn would also likely be deployed, the Holcombs worked out a family-care plan under which Vaughn's mother would move to Fort Carson and look after the children.
"I gave up a lot to be part of this effort," Simone said. "I explained [to my children], 'I believe in this country.'"
The arrangement began to collapse, however, when Vaughn's ex-wife, who is the biological mother of two of the children -- Taylor, 7, and Dustin, 9 --went to court seeking increased custody rights.
Simone and Vaughn were each granted emergency leave to attend a Sept. 17 status conference in county court. When they were ordered to reappear at another hearing on Oct. 3, the emergency leave was extended. Simone was to return to Iraq on Oct. 9; Vaughn was to return on Oct. 14.
Meanwhile, matters became even more complicated. While the two were home on leave, Vaughn's mother decided she needed to return home to Ohio to care for her husband, who has prostate cancer.
Soon, Simone realized that "somebody's got to stay home." She began talking to her commanders about possibly being taken off active duty or getting a "compassionate reassignment." Noting that Vaughn was set to retire from the Army in late November, she also suggested that her leave simply be extended until her husband's return.
At first, she says, her commanders appeared sympathetic. In a Sept. 24 e-mail message, one them wrote to her, "you will not be coming back [to Iraq] most likely."
By Oct. 2, however -- the day before the second custody hearing -- her commanders had changed their tune. An unsigned e-mail message forwarded to her from her command states, "If she [Holcomb] doesn't start the return journey, I am forced to report her as AWOL/deserter."
Simone Holcomb says that during the Oct. 3 hearing, she notified the judge of her predicament but promised to do everything in her power to stay with the children. The judge gave her custody of the children and ordered her to attend mediation with Taylor and Dustin's biological mother.
Holcomb told her commanders about the judge's order. Still, in an Oct. 7 e-mail, she was informed she would not be deactivated or reassigned. Again, she was ordered to return.
Instead, she stayed. On Oct. 14, Vaughn returned to Iraq as scheduled. Four days later, one of Simone Holcomb's commanders, Maj. Heather Herrera, informed her via e-mail that she was being processed for discharge, and that disciplinary action against her was pending under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. "You are still considered AWOL," Herrera wrote.
An Oct. 23 e-mail informed Simone Holcomb that her pay had been stopped. The Guard has also said it wants her to return all pay she has received since Oct. 10.
Exhausted all efforts
The Army National Guard declined to comment for this story, other than to issue a short written statement.
"The information provided by SPC Holcomb to your paper is not completely accurate," Maj. Herrera wrote in an e-mail. "I can assure you that I am working hard to resolve this issue keeping in mind the best interests of SPC Holcomb, the children involved, the needs of the Army and America's current mission in Iraq."
However, asked to specify what was inaccurate about Holcomb's information, Herrera refused.
Simone Holcomb, meanwhile, says she has exhausted all efforts to resolve the issue with her commanders. She now wants to get out of the Guard as quickly as possible, though she doesn't want to be disciplined or dishonorably discharged.
"I don't want my career ruined," she said.
The ordeal has left her disillusioned with the military. Noting that her husband is a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, and that she offered to return to Iraq when he retires in November, she says she can't believe the Guard won't cut her any slack.
"How much more can you ask one family to sacrifice?" she asks.