Auletto pointed to a large Stars and Stripes hanging in her Ocean City, N.J., apartment. "That flag came out of the last mission I did in Iraq," Auletto says. "Everyone who was on that mission signed it."

Auletto, a nurse-practitioner with the 177th Fighter Wing Medical Group of the New Jersey Air National Guard, loves being a nurse - for both the Air Force and Temple University's Department of Nursing, where she is an assistant professor. She works at the university during the week and spends her drill weekends on the 177th's base at Atlantic City International Airport.

Auletto joined the military in 2002, motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks. "I knew I was going to get deployed," she says. "I had a strong need and desire to do something for my country."

When the order actually came, "That's when I felt the pangs over how was I going to feel about leaving my kids. Was I going to want to go? And who was going to take care of my kids?" she says. "There was this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that they would be orphans if I died."

Auletto was deployed from October 2003 to September 2004 and worked on airborne hospitals that flew between Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Iraq. Wounded soldiers received immediate medical treatment on board before they were transferred to military facilities in Germany and the United States.

Before joining the military, Auletto and her children already had slogged through tough times. Her husband died in a car accident in 1998, leaving her with two daughters and a son to raise. Her children, she says, grew up quickly after that tragedy.

The Air Force brought the widow financial security, a change from taking multiple jobs to earn a living. She also found health insurance that was cheaper and better than her civilian jobs offered.

The downside, her separation from her kids, was huge.

During her yearlong deployment, Auletto sent her children around the country to live with family and friends.

Her son, Beckett Bayer, was 12 when his mother went to Germany. "I went to Georgia to live with my aunt and uncle. It was a change from seeing each other every day to seeing each other one time every three months," says Bayer, now 18.

His sisters stayed with friends: Bryce Bayer, then about 14, went to Maryland, and Brittan Auletto, then 20, went to Arizona.

The arrangement was hardest at Thanksgiving and Christmas, says Bryce Bayer, now 20 and a Temple University junior studying in Scotland this year. "It's strange to be apart from your siblings when it's around the holidays," she says over the phone.

Relatives criticized Auletto for being away from her children so much. She has no regrets. She called or wrote them nearly every day and believes she has been a strong role model. Her kids say that, too.

It is possible to be a good patriot and a good mother, Auletto says. "For some people it might not be. For me, it was very doable. I did it."

   - Carolyn Davis