SAN DIEGO, Calif. – They may have been Marines, fighting the War on Terror far from their homes, but they were still just regular guys — and gals.
Lance Cpl. Bryan Bertrand was planning on buying a guitar. Capt. Matthew Bancroft had dreamed about flying planes since he was seven years old.
Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, the first U.S. servicewoman to die in the Afghanistan campaign, was following in the footsteps of her older brother, Matthew Winters Jr., who was also a Marine.
All three were among the seven Marines killed when their plane — a KC-130 used for in-flight refueling and hauling cargo — crashed into a mountain in Pakistan late Wednesday as it approached a military airfield. The incident was the worst U.S. casualty toll thus far in the war.
"Any time you hear one Marine, from anywhere, has lost his life, it's just sad. It's even harder on you when they come from your home base," said Maj. T.V. Johnson, director of public affairs at the Marine Corps Station in Miramar, near San Diego, the Marines' home base.
Winters, 25, of Du Page, Ill., was a radio operator who joined the Marine Corps in 1997.
"The morning they came by the house, it was about four of them and they told me that there had been a crash and my daughter was in it," said their father, Matthew Winters, who last spoke to his daughter just before the holidays. "It just caught all of us by a real big surprise."
Bertrand, 23, of Coos Bay, Ore., had served as a Marine for three years and could have been home about a month ago. But he volunteered for another tour of duty, said his father, Bruce.
"He didn't want to be on the sidelines," Bruce Bertrand said. "He loved what he was doing."
In one of his last letters, Bryan Bertrand told his parents he'd saved enough money to buy an electric guitar. It was to be waiting for him when he returned from his tour of duty in Pakistan.
Gunnery Sgt. Stephen L. Bryson joined the service after graduating from Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery, Ala. in 1983.
"He is my only child," his mother Deloris Bryson told The Birmingham News. "He just called to let me know he was thinking about me on Tuesday. It was his birthday. He turned 36."
Among the other victims were Sgt. Nathan P. Hays, a 21-year-old flight mechanic, who grew up in Wilbur, Wash., a small town about 55 miles west of Spokane.
Bill Grigsby, his former teacher and high school football coach, said Hays "was a kid who probably didn't have quite as much actual football talent as other kids but he always just worked so hard and was such a team guy."
The parents of Bancroft, 29, the pilot of the plane, recalled Wednesday that their son was 7 years old when he first announced he wanted to become a pilot.
"This is truly sad," said Bob Osborne, his basketball coach at Burney High School in Redding, Calif., Bancroft's hometown. "But I think that if a person has to leave this world, doing it for your country is the best way to go."
The other victims were identified by the Department of Defense as: the co-pilot, Capt. Daniel G. McCollum, 29, of Irmo, S.C.; and Staff Sgt. Scott N. Germosen, 37, of New York.
The dead Marines were part of the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, whose history includes service in every major U.S. military action since World War II.
Known as the "Raiders," the squadron was activated on April 1, 1943. Its logo shows an aircraft between a pair of crossed swords with the word "Raiders" above it.
The base, tucked into a nondescript-looking section of San Diego, is reached by a busy street lined with strip malls, furniture stores, fast-food restaurants and convenience markets.
"It makes me sad, I know a lot of people from Miramar," said Sarah Lindsay, a waitress working late Wednesday night at Keith's, a 24-hour restaurant near the base that is a popular hangout for Marines.
President Bush expressed his condolences for the fallen Marines, saying the crash was a reminder of "how serious the times are today."
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the soldiers," he said. "But I want to remind them that the cause that we are now engaged in is just and noble. The cause is freedom and this nation will not rest until we've achieved our objective."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.