After joining the Army, Spc. Samuel Watts sent a photograph home to his church in Wheaton showing himself dressed in camouflage and ready for patrol. Underneath it, his pastor said, someone wrote, "Sam at work."
On Wednesday, hundreds of mourners filed into the same church to pay respects to the 20-year-old soldier, who was remembered for his unwavering patriotism and his love of the job that ultimately cost him his life.
"We are very grateful that Sam went to work for all of us," the Rev. Scott Bruzek said at a memorial service at St. John Lutheran Church. "Sam was a good kid, and he grew up to be a great man. He was kind and strong, and he was confident because he was happy in his own skin and he loved what he was doing. Sam loved being at work."
Drawn to the service by what peers described as deep dedication to his country, Watts enlisted upon graduating from Wheaton North High School in 2010. He trained as an infantryman and paratrooper at Fort Benning, Ga., and was deployed to Afghanistan early this year with the 82nd Airborne Division.
On April 25, a roadside bomb in the Kandahar province rocked Watts's unit, instantly killing one of his fellow servicemen and injuring several others. Watts was taken to Germany for treatment, then flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where he succumbed to his injuries on May 19.
U.S. Army Major Gen. Rodney Anderson, deputy commander of the 18th Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., said Wednesday that Watts taught "lessons for all of us" through his volunteer service during wartime.
"Sam Watts laid down his life for his team, his friends, his family, his unit. He laid down his life for our mission," he said. "We mourn his death, but we celebrate the decision and the accomplishment of this remarkable man. He epitomizes not only Army values but our national values."
Leading a procession to Wheaton Cemetery were more than 40 Patriot Guard motorcycles adorned with flags. As the procession turned the corner at Franklin and Main Streets, hundreds of children were gathered outside Franklin Middle School with their hands over their hearts and signs reading, "God Bless Spc. Watts."
Friends said Watts hoped to become a paramedic and had taken fire science courses for two years at Addison's Technology Center of DuPage. During that time, he was chosen to participate in a commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because of his reverence for the tragedy.
On Wednesday, Rev. Bruzek encouraged mourners to remain steadfast in their pursuit of peace after Watts's death. He likened the soldier's story to that of Jesus Christ, who "worked and died and rose so that we can live."
"Every hero goes somewhere dangerous so you and I can stay safe," Bruzek said. "When Sam was a distant man, he was a face on our wall. But now he is a face at our altar."