RICHMOND, Va. – The lure of a military career proved too great for Army Pfc. Matthew A. Commons, a high school honors student, soccer player and at 21 the youngest of seven American servicemen killed in the bloodiest day of the war for U.S. forces.
Single and headstrong, Matthew Commons dropped out of the University of Nevada at Reno in 2000 to chase his dream of becoming an elite Army Ranger and follow his grandfather and father into the service.
"He mirrored my life in a lot of ways," said Gregory J. Commons, 50, an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam. "He served his country and he loved his country."
Matthew Commons died Monday in an air and ground offensive against Al Qaeda that claimed seven American lives, among them a 26-year-old medic who had two little girls and a 22-year-old high school math teacher who joined the Army to pay off his student loans.
Eleven other soldiers were wounded during the intense fighting as two helicopters carrying American troops came under attack from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The remains of the three Rangers, four Army servicemen and one Navy SEAL were flown back to the United States early Wednesday, Staff Sgt. Tom Hernan said. Dover Air Force Base in Delaware was preparing the bodies for burial.
"We cried through the night," Gregory Commons said, referring also to Matthew's mother who lives in Nevada. His last conversation with their son was in February, on his 21st birthday.
A month later, two MH-47 Chinook helicopter team were ferrying reconnaissance troops south of the town of Gardez when one team was hit by enemy fire, said Brig Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, 32, a Navy SEAL based in Norfolk, Va., tumbled out of his helicopter but apparently survived the fall and was shot on the ground, said Marine Maj. Ralph Mills, speaking for the U.S. Central Command.
Commons and the other soldiers died during another helicopter mission to bring special forces into the battle area, Rosa said. Once on the ground, those forces got into a firefight.
Among the casualties was Senior Airman Jason Dean Cunningham, 26, a pararescueman with the 38th Rescue Squadron and a trained combat medic who was sent in to bring back members of the team in eastern Afghanistan.
"Jason died doing what he liked to do, save lives," said his father, Larry "Red" Cunningham, choking on his words as he read a brief statement Tuesday.
"We're very proud of our baby," the airman's mother, Jackie Cunningham, said outside the family's home in Gallup, N.M.
Cunningham, was stationed at Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., where he had a wife, Theresa, and two daughters.
Sgt. Bradley Crose, 22, of Orange Park, Fla., was a member of the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga.
"He was the most treasured thing I could give my country," his father Ricky Crose said Tuesday, his voice breaking. "I want people to know the sacrifices he made."
Spc. Marc A. Anderson, 30, of Brandon, Fla., was the second member of the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment to die.
Anderson studied mechanical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland for two years before becoming a math major at Florida State University. He taught junior-high math and was a track coach, but joined the Army to help pay off his student loans.
"Everybody here is taking it as expected. They're saddened," said Capt. Josh Davis, a spokesman for the Ranger unit. "Their hearts are going out to the families and the guys."
Sgt. Philip S. Svitak, 31, of Joplin, Mo., was a flight engineer assigned to 2nd Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in Fort Campbell, Ky. He was determined to make a difference in Afghanistan, his mother, Roseann Svitak, said Tuesday.
"He told me before he went, 'Mom, the terrorists have to be stopped,"' she said. "He said, 'If they send me over there and anything happens to me, I'm proud to die for my country."'
Svitak leaves a wife, Laura, and two young sons, 2-year-old Nolan and 4-year-old Ethan.
Roberts, a Woodland, Calif., native was based at a Navy SEAL unit in Norfolk, Va., and also left behind a wife and 18-month-old son.
Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, 36, of Windsor Locks, Conn., was remembered by his older sister Lori McQueeney as a good athlete and "a cutup."
"He's the life of the party," McQueeney said.
• Sgt. Bradley S. Crose, 27, of Orange Park, Fla.
• Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, 31, of Joplin, Mo.
• Spc. Marc A. Anderson, 30, of Brandon, Fla.
• Pfc. Matthew A. Commons, 21, of Boulder City, Nev.
• Aviation Boatswain's Mate-Handling Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, 32, of Woodland, Calif.
• Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, 36, of Waco, Texas
• Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, 26, of Camarillo, Calif.