Army Sgt. Jason Lantieri of Killingworth, a member of the Alaska-based 725th Brigade Support Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division, died Oct. 10, 2007 of injuries suffered during vehicle maneuvers. He was 25.
CLINTON -- Jason Lantieri's story is the turnaround kind, one that starts with a childhood of troubles that get overcome on the way to a solid life. But Lantieri's story ended suddenly this week in an Iraqi town called Iskandariyah, leaving family and friends shaken.
The young Army sergeant, part of a transportation unit working south of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, was in an accident Tuesday and died Wednesday. He was apparently pinned between vehicles, but the incident is still being investigated.
In the disjointed hours since men in Army uniforms showed up at the front door of Jon and Kathy Miller in Clinton on Wednesday morning, the family has struggled to comprehend the death of their foster son, whom they had raised as a member of their family. The news didn't fit into Lantieri's story - one that seemed on its way to a happy ending.
He was a child adrift in the foster care system when the Millers, who were longtime residents of Killingworth, took him in. "We just decided to go and ask if he could become part of our family," Kathy Miller said Thursday, sitting in front of a pile of pictures of Lantieri.
"He called us mom and dad," Jon Miller said.
He may have been a clown, a guy whose energy sometimes had to be reined in, but he started finding ways to get good grades in high school. Charlie Macunas, principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School, where Lantieri graduated in 2000, said he had the high-energy kid in his social studies class. He watched the once-troubled boy start getting involved with everything, with the Millers' help.
Lantieri was on the student council and played soccer, basketball and baseball.
His high school basketball coach and English teacher, Paul McCormick, said Thursday, "He was a hard-nosed competitor in athletics. He was a tough kid who would get in the middle of things."
David Miller, Lantieri's older brother, actually helped McCormick coach the team then. He used the same words about his little brother: tough, hard-nosed, and added "mischievous." But in his off-the-court life, Lantieri wasn't somebody who judged people. He "gave everybody a chance."
Lantieri's story was about growth and progress, Jon Miller said. This military chapter was only one segment, coming just after his college business degree. When the parents see his military photos, with Lantieri's stern face, they don't seem quite right.
Kathy: "I hardly recognize that person." She added, "That's just a little piece of Jason. It's not the whole picture of who he is."
They remember the laughing. They remember him playing with their grandkids. They remember how others were drawn to him.
Kathy: "He was a gift to us -"
Jon: "And he taught us a lot."
Kathy: "We taught him a little, and he taught us a lot."
Though he didn't come from a military family, Lantieri joined the Army three years ago, stationed in the Alaska-based 725th Brigade Support Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division.
Kathy: "It was a way to go on an adventure and see the world."
Jon: "He decided this is what he wanted to do."
The 25-year-old had been in Iraq for a while. He sent e-mail regularly, but he had been able to call home only once. His parents missed the call, but the message has remained since on the answering machine.
Then came the knock on the door.
Kathy: "Earth-shattering. Every mother's nightmare."
Since then, she's listened again to that message on the answering machine, a reminder of Jason's lost voice.
They don't have many details about what happened yet. The Department of Defense news release, in its typical brevity, lists his name, his hometown and that he died "of injuries suffered during a vehicle accident." Another release from his unit in Alaska said he was killed during "late-night vehicle maneuvers."
Kathy: "I don't know how much that matters."
It doesn't change the outcome. The Millers are planning for a burial in Killingworth, where Lantieri grew up and the family lived until recently.
The Connecticut casualties of the war have been sad to see over the years, Macunas said, but "it hits even harder when it finally comes to your doorstep."
It typically takes about a week for the Army to transport a body from Iraq and through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where all of those killed in Iraq are prepared for return to their families. In the meantime, Army casualty assistance officials from the state's National Guard work out the details with the family. Until the funeral, the governor has called for the flags of Connecticut to fly at half-staff.
As Gov. M. Jodi Rell calls for the state "to honor the sacrifice that Sgt. Lantieri has made on our behalf," it's hard to square that idea with the goofy-faced photos of Lantieri graduating high school or playing with children.
"Jason lived life in the moment," Kathy Miller said.
Earlier this year, he had a break from the war, so he went to Europe. He hit several of the big sites. The Louvre in Paris. The Colosseum in Rome. But what he wrote about in the blog on his page on MySpace was hanging out with the people. He wrote, "Europe is a great place to just live for the day and for the moment."
McCormick was having the same hard time as everybody else on Thursday, trying to realize what has happened. "Seems almost incongruous. It doesn't register. The kid had everything going for him."
McCormick said, "He's just a great story."
Contact Jesse Hamilton at email@example.com.