Avery and Alaya Alexander, 9

Army Staff Sgt. LeRoy Alexander, 27

Died June 3, 2005

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The labor pains stretched on for 15 hours before the Alexander twins finally arrived on a muggy North Carolina morning.

First came Avery, 4 pounds and 15 ounces, at 9:11 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2005. Then his sister, Alaya, 5 pounds, 1 ounce, at 9:48 a.m.

At Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center, their exhausted mother, Marissa Alexander, greeted her newborns with a mixture of exhilaration and sorrow. In their small faces, she already saw the features of the person absent from the delivery room: their father.

Staff Sgt. LeRoy Alexander had been killed three months earlier by a roadside bomb near his base in eastern Afghanistan. The 27-year-old Green Beret was just a few weeks shy of coming home so he could be present for the birth of their longed-for twins, who were conceived with the help of fertility treatments.

Instead of Alexander himself, there was a photo of the 200-pound demolition specialist, taken just days before his death. He was with his comrades, wearing sunglasses and a brown T-shirt that barely contained his muscular body.

In the hospital room, Avery gazed at his mother with large brown eyes that made her think he was the “spitting image of his daddy.”

“LeRoy, are you in there?” Marissa wondered.

“Daddy’s vehicle got blown up.”

Nine years later, the twins were eating cookie-flavored Blizzards at a Dairy Queen near Fort Lee, a military base south of Richmond, Va., where their mom is an Army logistics officer. They had just come from a soccer game, so they were wearing matching gray-and-black jerseys, their skinny legs protected by black shin guards.

The third-graders do almost everything together. Though they have separate bedrooms, they routinely sleep in the same bed. They share an iPad and are addicted to Minecraft and Animal Jam.

Alaya is the more exuberant of the two, her face often animated by a big smile. She loves to draw with pencils and markers.

“I want to be an artist,” she declared.

Avery imagined himself working alongside her. “I want to be an employee — Alaya’s employee,” he said.

That made sense to her. “Actually, at home, I am always the boss of him,” she said.

They’ve known since they were 3 or 4 years old that their dad is in heaven and that he died fighting “bad guys.” But at age 5, Avery pressed for more specifics, and his mother explained: “Daddy’s vehicle got blown up.”

Marissa Alexander, pregnant with twins, attends her husband's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in 2005. (Photos by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

She’s told them stories about how the two of them met as students at C.D. Hylton High School in Northern Virginia. How their dad was a wide receiver on the football team, the class clown, a dancer with great rhythm.

The twins keep photos of Alexander in their bedrooms, though he’s missed every milestone they’ve shared: Their first steps, first words, first day of kindergarten, first trip to Disneyland.

Avery said he misses his dad when he gets bullied at school. Alaya misses him when she sees her friends getting picked up at the recreation center by their fathers.

Though their mom is dating again, their father’s absence makes them different from many of their classmates.

On Alexander’s birthday, the twins usually brought a balloon from Party City to their dad’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery and released it into the air, with a note telling him that they love him.

At their ninth birthday party in September at Fort Lee’s welcome center, the twins decided to do the release honoring their father in the parking lot. Instead of attaching a note, they picked out a balloon printed with a “9” to mark the number of years since their birth — and the number of years since their father's death.

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.