Two days before Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick was killed Tuesday in an ambush in Afghanistan, the former Williamsville resident earned a Purple Heart.
Shrapnel hit his forearm, but it could have been worse.
"A fellow Marine next to him died in the rocket attack, and a sandbag saved my brother," Kenefick's younger sister, Jade Myszka, said. "He told me he loved me."
In what would be her final telephone conversation with him Sunday, Myszka said she suddenly realized just how dangerous her brother's situation was. But she also knew that he was where he wanted to be -- on the front lines defending his family and country as a United States Marine.
Twice, he had been named Marine of the Year, family members recalled Wednesday.
But his 12-year military career, punctuated time and time again with honors, would end early Tuesday when his unit came under heavy fire in an ambush by insurgents.
The Marines and Afghan military were on their way to meet with elders at Ganjgal, a fortified village in the east, near the Pakistan border.
Three other Marines and several Afghan troops also died in the attack that, according to an eyewitness account by an embedded journalist from McClatchy Newspapers, left the troops without support from U.S. helicopters for more than an hour, despite previous assurances air support would be five minutes away.
Reading from a military dispatch she received providing some details of her 30-year-old son's death, Susan Price said, they were "en route to a key leader engagement in Ganjgal Village, Kunar Province, when his element [vehicle] was attacked by a complex ambush."
The dispatch, Price said, indicated that her son apparently died while being transported to a medical facility.
Out of respect for her brother, Myszka said she would not fault the military for delaying backup support.
"My brother told me he will never speak bad of the Marine Corps. 'That is my job, and whoever is in command at the time is my boss,' " Myszka said, recalling her brother's words.
Price said her son had been given the option of attending officers' training school, which would have provided a safer career route, but he declined.
"He wanted hands-on experience with his fellow service members. He was first in and last out," said Price, an Army veteran and daughter of a Marine gunnery sergeant -- the late Stuart Price.
Her son's devotion to the military, she explained, was a continuation of his early life when growing up on South Union Road in Williamsville, he would check on elderly neighbors during heavy snowstorms. "He was a paperboy and knew everyone," Price said.
When he attended Williamsville South High School, he carried on a family tradition of athletics, playing football, basketball and baseball.
"What I remember about Aaron in 1993-94, it was a very exciting time, and he was a big part of our young athletic program, and our coaches viewed him as a leader, so I'm not surprised he took that role of leadership as a Marine," said Kevin Lester, the high school's athletic director. "He had a quiet confidence and quiet strength as you find in most Marines."
After moving to Atlanta for the last two years of high school, he kept up the family tradition of military service in 1996 by signing up for the Marines' delayed-enlistment program.
Three years later, he was first named Marine of the Year, an honor that he would receive again several years later.
In February 2001, he was stationed in Germany and for the next 2 1/2 years served in a number of humanitarian missions in Africa.
At one point, he was sent to the U.S. Army's Airborne School in Fort Benning, Ga., where he was named "Distinguished Honor Graduate." He later returned to the United States and was assigned to the Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which took him to Iraq several times, his family said.
"He loved standing up for his country. He was a man of valor, and that's a rare commodity in a man of 30 years old," said Price, who lives in Tampa.
That devotion to duty, his relatives said, is what ultimately brought him to Afghanistan on Aug. 3. "He was adamant about going over," Myszka said.
Now the family says they will do everything they can to keep his memory alive in Western New York, which he still considered home.
His girlfriend, Kerry Crosby, lives in Kentucky but is also from the Williamsville area.
On visits here, Kenefick often went golfing with his father, Donnie Kenefick of Williamsville, and his brother-in-law, Kevin Myszka of Clarence.
His yet-to-be-scheduled Mass of Christian Burial, according to family members, will be celebrated in Christ the King Catholic Church in Snyder, where he made his First Communion and Confirmation.
Kenefick also is survived by his older sister, Jacquelyn Tiftickjian, and his young daughter, Landon.
But perhaps it will be stories like the one his mother told that will best keep his spirit alive: "A few years ago at Thanksgiving he asked, 'Mom, what time are we having dinner?' He asked because he wanted to go to the VA Hospital. He said, 'That's where the true heroes are.' "
And what was his mother's response? "I just smiled and said, 'That's why I love you so much,' " Price said.
When his body returns to Dover, Del., early today, both his parents will be there for a military arrival ceremony.
Kenefick will be buried at Acacia Park Cemetery in Pendleton.
"My son will be buried next to my dad," Price said.