WOODLAND, Calif.—Neil Roberts grew up in this dusty Central Valley town, spending his teen years immersed in wrestling and rock 'n' roll before finding a niche as a Navy SEAL.
Airman Jason Cunningham was reared in New Mexico, but he called Camarillo home. He spent holidays with his wife's family there and planned to return to the West Coast to live.
And so they came together, part of a cadre of eight troops from three services who fought and died in the bloodiest battle of America's war on terrorism.
In the snowcapped Afghan mountains harboring Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts, they came under fire Monday while being ferried into battle aboard two helicopters.
Details remain murky, but authorities confirmed that Roberts, 32, survived a fall from his aircraft only to be captured and killed by enemy fighters. Cunningham, 26, and Commons, 21, were aboard another helicopter that was hit by rocket and small-arms fire.
The other dead were Army Sgt. Bradley S. Crose, 27, of Orange Park, Fla.; Army Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, 31, of Joplin, Mo.; Army Spc. Marc A. Anderson, 30, of Brandon, Fla.; and Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, 36, of Waco, Texas.
They left behind wives and young children, family and friends. Roberts, a petty officer, left an 18-month-old son at his Norfolk, Va., base. Senior Airman Cunningham left his wife, Theresa, 27, of Camarillo, and two daughters, Hannah, 2, and Kyla, 4.
An American was killed Saturday by enemy mortar fire in the current U.S. assault. Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34, of Wade, N.C., left behind his wife, Sheila, and two children, Darbi, 6, and Christopher, 3.
Pfc. Commons was single. He was just settling on a plan for life.
In Boulder City, southeast of Las Vegas, Commons excelled in soccer and earned academic honors in high school. Math teacher Alison York recalled a student council leader, a youth who was well-liked and happy-go-lucky. "He was fun to have in class," she said.
But at the University of Nevada-Reno, he struggled during freshman year and dropped out. He joined the Army in July 2000.
"He was searching around, confused about what he wanted to do with his life," said his father, Greg Commons of Alexandria, Va. "We always talked about the Marines, since his grandfather was a Marine in World War II and I was a Marine--an embassy guard in Prague.
"One day he called me and said: 'Well, Dad, you talked me out of being a Marine. I joined the Army.' "
Commons chose a risky job: airborne Ranger.
His father was incredulous. "I said: 'What? Why?' And he said, 'Well, Dad, this is what I want--to be the best.' "
He talked to his son about a week ago. "He was happy with what he was doing," Commons said. "He was proud. He was talking about making it his career. He was a great young man."
Cunningham was part of an elite Air Force unit that provides combat search and rescue. He had been in Afghanistan for just a month.
"He didn't come from Camarillo, but he always considered himself a member of the community," wife Theresa said from their home in Valdosta, Ga., near Moody Air Force Base, where Cunningham was based.
Cunningham met his wife while both were serving in the Navy in Naples, Italy. He enlisted in the Air Force two years ago.
The couple spent holidays at her family's Camarillo home. His father-in-law, 59-year-old Lito Decastro, recalled Cunningham as a quiet and serious man, but also a loving husband and father.
"He was a good dad, and I know that he was a good husband," Decastro said. "My daughter is absolutely devastated. When you are in the military you don't think you're not coming back from a mission. Jason was too young to think he was going to die."
Roberts grew up on Harley Street in Woodland, a farm town fast becoming a suburb of Sacramento. His family, including 11 children, was in seclusion Tuesday. His parents, Jan and Chris Roberts, had taken in numerous foster children.
"They have such a sense of family," said Gaye Pencin, a neighbor. "Neil was just a great kid. . . . You couldn't ask for a better soldier."
Roberts was a welterweight wrestler and set a school record for pinning his opponent the fastest, "something outlandish like in 9 seconds," said Rick Nichols, 27, who grew up on the same street as Roberts.
Roberts joined the Navy right out of high school and became a SEAL--the elite special operations unit--in 1992. For the last decade, he was stationed on the East Coast.
Times staff writer Tom Gorman in Las Vegas contributed to this report.