BALTIMORE – From Maine to California, devastated family and friends are grappling with the news that a loved one has died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Seven U.S. troops have perished in the first few days of military action.
"I was devastated. My only son, my first-born, gone," the father of Staff Sgt. Kendall Damon Waters-Bey said.
Family of Waters-Bey, 29, gathered in Baltimore, laughing through tears as they looked through photographs of their brother, their son who died in a helicopter crash in Kuwait on Thursday.
His sisters recalled Kendall as a jokester, and his father showed off a picture of Kendall and Kendall's 10-year-old son holding a fish they caught during a trip to Florida.
"He was always making faces, making people laugh," said Michelle Waters, a younger sister. "And he loved to barbecue — ribs, especially."
Waters-Bey was one of the four U.S. Marines who died, together with eight British Marines also on board and two U.S. Marines killed in combat, they were the first allied casualties of the war in Iraq.
"The world will be a safer place because of their dedicated service," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Washington news conference Friday.
Expressions of gratitude by U.S. officials could only be of little comfort to shocked and saddened families dealing with the news in their hometowns.
In addition to Waters-Bey, the Pentagon identified the Marines killed in the helicopter crash as Maj. Jay Thomas Aubin, 36, of Waterville, Maine; the pilot, Capt. Ryan Anthony Beaupre, 30, of Bloomington, Ill.; and Cpl. Brian Matthew Kennedy, 25, of Houston. Aubin was from a unit out of Yuma, Ariz., while the other three were out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.
U.S. officials did not immediately identify the two Marines killed in combat; both were members of the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"He was my best friend and my hero," said Christopher Beaupre, 22, said of his older brother Ryan, who was also to be the best man at his wedding this November.
Beaupre's father, Mark, had a premonition after hearing that a helicopter had crashed, and he knew what was happening when the family dog began barking before dawn Friday. Standing at his door in St. Anne, Ill., was a delegation of Marines to tell him that his son was among the dead.
"He was just nervous and on edge," related the Rev. James Fanale, who heads the family's church. "Then the dog started barking at 3 in the morning, and Mark said, 'There they are."'
Beaupre was a dean's list student at Illinois Wesleyan University who worked at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington after graduating with an accounting degree in 1995.
"We used to say he was married to the Marines and having an affair with his surfboard," said Ryan Beaupre's sister, Alyse Beaupre, 31, standing in front of the home where the family's four children grew up.
As talk of war began, Jay Aubin knew he would probably be among the first to enter combat, according to his father, Tom, and stepmother, who live in the central Texas town of Bangs. He asked his stepmother to protect his father, who has a bad heart.
"He told me this summer, don't tell this to dad, but if something starts up, I'll be right in the thick of it," Carol Aubin said.
Kennedy graduated from high school in Glenview, Ill., with honors in 1995, then attended Purdue University before transferring to Texas Tech in 1998, according to his father. He enlisted the next year.
"He gave his life in an effort to contribute to the freedom of the Iraqi people," Mark D. Kennedy, 52, said Friday from his Houston home. "We just miss him terribly already. He was a wonderful man."
In Baltimore, Michael Waters-Bey said Thanksgiving holiday last year was the last the family saw his son.
Asked what he would tell President Bush, the father, who does not support the war, said: "This was not your son or daughter. That chair he sat in at Thanksgiving will be empty forever."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.