Staff Sgt. Christopher W. Dill always did it his way, always made his own decisions.
Like the time, after high school, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Like the time, nine years later, when he joined the Buffalo Fire Department. And like the time, last year, when he passed up the chance to train soldiers in Missouri, rather than be deployed to Iraq.
Dill, 32, was killed Monday when he was shot in the side, struck by small-arms fire during an ambush while on patrol with Iraqi troops he had helped train. "They were ambushed by terrorists, not insurgents," his father, William, said.
Seventy minutes later, at 7 p.m. Iraqi time, Staff Sgt. Dill was pronounced dead in an Iraqi field hospital. He was a member of the 98th Division of the Army Reserves stationed in Kirkush.
By all accounts, the firefighter-soldier was doing what he loved, being part of the action, watching with pride as the Iraqi army he had helped train evolved into a more professional fighting force.
"It's always tough to lose your only son," his father said in the family's Town of Tonawanda home Tuesday. "But we can't blame anybody, and we shouldn't blame anybody. That's war. And he was doing what he wanted to do.
"I think his message would be that it was a noble mission, he enjoyed it, and when it was over, he was going to be back doing what he loved most, being a firefighter," his father added.
Nobody forced Dill to enlist in the Army, sign up for the Army Reserves or go to either Iraq or the Gulf War. Those were his decisions.
His father, a retired Buffalo Fire Department lieutenant who headed the Fire Investigation Unit, remembered trying to steer his son into either the Air Force or the Navy after he graduated from Kenmore East High School.
One day, Chris Dill came home and told his father he had enlisted in the Army, as a combat engineer.
"He looked at me and said, 'I did what I wanted to do,' " William Dill said.
Marsha Dill remembered their son saying that he just wouldn't accept the opportunity to go to Missouri for a year to train soldiers, rather than go to Iraq.
"I'm not going to sit out the fight," he told his parents.
Chris Dill, who had fought in the Gulf War, was awarded a Bronze Star in Iraq, along with two other soldiers, for his actions in leading the group -- which included Iraqi soldiers -- into the battle for Fallujah. They had trained about 150 Iraqi soldiers, but when it came time to move from the Kirkush Military Training Base into Fallujah, only about 50 of them showed up. They made the trip anyway.
Dill was proud of the work he and his colleagues with the Mobile Training Team were doing in training the Iraqi army. In e-mails to his parents, he said the Iraqi troops were becoming more professional, more competent, especially after the election results gave more hope to the Iraqi people.
"Our Iraqi (soldiers) are now pretty squared away," he wrote in a March 25 e-mail. "Much of the chaos is gone, and they are running somewhat of a professional unit."
There was a playful side to Dill, even over in Iraq. In exchange for the language lessons from his interpreter there, he taught the interpreter how to play Texas Hold 'Em. And then there was this Feb. 22 e-mail:
"It might be hard to eat at Swiss Chalet again, cuz the chicken here is freshly killed that day," he wrote. "But their slaughter area is roadside, so we see all kinds of animals getting wacked. But that's about it. More fun in the sun."
It wasn't hard for those who knew Dill to draw parallels between his two careers, as a firefighter and a soldier.
"What makes Chris unique is that he is a brave person, very unselfish," Fire Commissioner Michael L. D'Orazio said. "He fought bravely for his country as a soldier and for his community as a firefighter."
Both roles, firefighter and soldier, rely on a tightly knit group, on strong camaraderie, on deep trust among colleagues in life-and-death situations.
"He was an excellent firefighter, who took the job very seriously and was always prepared," said Lt. Michael J. Croft, his lieutenant with the 1st Platoon of Engine 21. "I'm sure he was the same way as a soldier. It's important to have somebody next to you that you can rely on."
Dill loved being part of the crew, whether it was at Engine 21 on Jefferson Avenue at Kingsley Street or with the 98th Division.
"You're working with fellow warriors," his father said. "If you've got good people with you, it's easy to take both the hills and the valleys."
Testimonials and flowery quotes aren't needed to gauge how popular Dill was. His popularity comes through in the actions of others:
Last September, on just a day or two's notice, his buddies from the fire department had a going-away party for him in a local watering hole. More than 30 friends showed up on a Tuesday night.
"Chris was just thrilled, and humbled, that that many people in the department thought that much of him to come out on such short notice," Croft remembered.
One month later, just before Dill was deployed to Iraq, some of those same friends planned a road trip to Indiana, to say good-bye. When they found out that his wife, Dawn, already was there, they instead bought dinner for the couple and a round of drinks for everyone in the restaurant.
Croft still has the voice-mail message Dill left him, when he told him he was being called back on active duty.
"It's still on my machine," Croft said. "I was kind of waiting for him to come home, before I erased it."