DENVER – When Army Spc. Brian Penisten started dating Johnna Loia, he gave her dog tags that read "Brian loves Johnna" and "Johnna is fantastic." The two were looking forward to a spring wedding, a full ceremony with both their families.
The two happily altered their plans last week after learning Penisten was coming home on leave from Iraq. They set up a secret ceremony for Friday in Loia's hometown of Pueblo before a justice of the peace.
But Penisten never made it out of Iraq -- he and 14 other U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday when Iraq insurgents shot down a transport helicopter on its way to the U.S. base at the Baghdad airport.
"I told him I would be buried in these dog tags, and I would wait for him, even if it meant forever," Loia said Tuesday, her voice trembling during a telephone interview from Pueblo. "That's one promise I'm not going to go back on. I'll wait for him forever."
Penisten, 28, was the only child of John and Mona Penisten of Fort Wayne, Ind. One of four Fort Carson (search) soldiers killed in the attack, he is survived by a 4-year-old son, Trevor.
"It's the worst thing I've ever experienced," said John Loia, the fiancee's father. "All he wanted to do was come home and get married."
Loia, 25, met the muscular, 5-foot-9 Penisten with brown hair and blue eyes in September 2002 in Colorado Springs, near Fort Carson. They bonded over their love of pro football's Indianapolis Colts.
Penisten grew up in Fort Wayne, where he was a wrestling star at Bishop Dwenger High School (search).
"He didn't take anything at face value," principal Fred Tone said. "He would ask why. We had a dress code, and he would say, 'Why is that rule there? Why do we have to tuck our shirts in?"'
Penisten, a mechanic, joined the Army to make a better life for his son. He expected to leave in July after four years of service.
"He said he loved his country and he was going to fight for his country and the freedom everybody had," Loia said.
By the time Penisten proposed to Loia before his deployment this past spring, she had converted him into a country music (search) listener and a viewer of her favorite soap opera. The couple talked on the phone four or five times a week during his deployment.
"Ever since the deployment, it's been a roller coaster because it's been so crazy over there," Loia said. "One day you hear they're coming home. Then the day gets closer, then they're not."
The couple spoke for the last time just five hours before the helicopter attack was reported. "He told me he had to be debriefed and that I'd hear from him in a couple days," she said.
She didn't learn of Penisten's death until Monday, when military officers arrived at Mona Penisten's door while she was on the phone with Loia's mother. Services in Indiana and at Fort Carson were pending.
"We had made all these plans and they were almost ...," Loia said, trailing off. "If it wasn't for this stupid, stupid unfortunate accident -- I don't even know if it was an accident -- he would be home right now."