Military service was the path Sgt. Steven C. Ganczewski chose early in life, and his determination never wavered, even when his grades at Niagara Falls High School would have easily gained him admission to a good college.
"He got a lot of [resistance] from guidance counselors when he said he was joining the Army," said his father, Mark. "They didn't understand why someone with his potential would join the Army."
Ganczewski wanted to be an Army Ranger, and it was in that role that he died. The Pentagon announced Sunday that the 22-year-old husband and father was killed during combat operations Friday in Balad, Iraq, making him the 32nd member of the military from Western New York killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark Ganczewski, a veteran of the Vietnam War era, said the Army gave him additional details of his son's death but asked that they not be made public until an investigation is completed.
"All we want to know is what happened, and why," Ganczewski said.
Those answers must wait. Sunday night, as his parents displayed photos of their son in the living room of their Niagara Falls home, the focus was on a good boy who grew into an even better man in the Army.
"We're very proud of what he did, very proud of what he accomplished," said Mark Ganczewski. Added his wife, Maria, "He was successful at whatever he did. He had a good head."
Steven Ganczewski's aspirations took shape when he was a boy, his father said.
The elder Ganczewski spent 16 years in the Air Force, including a stint at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where he met and married Maria 23 years ago.
When he left the service and returned to Niagara Falls, Ganczewski passed along his fascination with aircraft to his son, taking him to the air shows at the Niagara Falls air base.
During one of those visits, Steve Ganczewski saw a pamphlet for the Civil Air Patrol and, at age 12, he joined. By the time he left five years later, he was cadet commander.
"We knew pretty much right away that [the military] was what he wanted to do," said high school friend A.J. Gelose. "He always had that drive. That was his dream."
When he was 15 or 16, he attended a rescue course sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol. That, his father said, is when the military dream narrowed to the dream of being an Army Ranger. That also was about the time of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mark Ganczewski remembers his son watching the coverage and saying, "Dad, we have to stop these people."
His parents spoke of their son's self-sufficiency. He worked at the Como Restaurant in the Falls so he could afford a car, then arranged for he and his buddies to pay for a stretch Hummer limousine to take them to the prom.
At Niagara Falls High, Steve Ganczewski played football and ran track. At home, he shared his father's love for classic rock, NASCAR, the Bills and the Sabres.
When it came time to leave high school, Maria Ganczewski said she really did not want her older son to join, "but that's what he wanted to do."
Mark Ganczewski said his son understood the risk. "He said, 'Dad, what am I supposed to do, take something safe?' "
In the Army, Steven Ganczewski served several tours of duty overseas. While stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., he met Rachel, also in the Army. They married a year ago in October, and Steven adopted Rachel's 2-year-old daughter, Makayla.
The couple purchased a house in Columbus, Ga., and Maria said her son worked diligently to make it a home for his new family.
"He made a house for his dogs outside," she said. Inside, he was partial to the family iguana, Leroy.
"They were just here in September," Mark Ganczewski said, adding that his son told him he was more confident than ever that he had chosen the right path.
"He loved [being a soldier]," his father said. "He said, 'This is what I want to do.' He thought he was making a difference there."
Aside from his parents, his wife and his daughter, Steven Ganczewski also is survived by his brother, Christopher, a senior at Niagara Falls High School who just interviewed for admission to the Air Force Academy.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Sunday.