NBC Chicago's Lauren Jiggetts offers this personal recollection of her cousin, Pfc. Gunnar Hotchkin, who was killed by a roadside bomb on June 16th, 2010 in Afghanistan:
That's a picture of Gunnar and me at my birthday party when I turned six or seven.
We're both in our swimsuits, looking away from the camera, squinting a little in the sun. His hair was bleached by chlorine and swimming outdoors.
Even at that age, you could tell that one day Gunnar would become a handsome man. I've long forgotten what we were looking at, but it's that picture that I can't seem to shake from my memory in the days after his death.
It's something about those carefree days of childhood, when you have your whole life ahead of you and the world hasn't yet to put its weight on your shoulders, that's difficult to forget.
There was the visit to Brookfield Zoo. The cicadas were out and everywhere we walked, the sound of bugs buzzed in our ears.
I'm standing next to him in one picture, kind of awkwardly, thinking that I was lucky to be related to him. My memories of Gunnar are a collection of infrequent visits when we were kids, usually during those hot summer months.
Despite the three years between our ages, he was always unfailingly nice to me and so full of life. He was the cool older cousin and I was just happy to be along for the ride.
We would both grow up and lose touch, as cousins often do. We were both swimmers and I'd hear or read about his accomplishments in the pool during high school. He was not only a swimmer. He was an All-American swimmer at Hinsdale Central High School; a swimmer whose name you could find on pool records in high schools across this area.
His name was on the records board at my high school in Lincolnshire. My sister, who stuck with swimming, would brag to her team that he was our cousin. That made him even more of a hero to her and me.
Last year, I learned Gunnar was married and had joined the military. His mother and his younger brother, Kurt, were able to make it to my wedding.
He joined the army after losing his job and it was a way to provide for his family.
I've interviewed so many families who have lost a loved one in the Middle East conflict. Their loss is heartbreaking. We all know that is the risk our men and women take on when they join the armed forces, but the pain is nearly unbearable when it happens.
I’ve stood in Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood and marveled at its quiet beauty. I was just there on Memorial Day last month.
All the headstones sit so neatly in a row and the miniature American flags flap in the breeze, among the brave men and women who lost their lives defending our country.
It breaks my heart to think of Gunnar dying at 31, with his wife and three young kids waiting at home.
It breaks my heart that he died in a land so foreign to me and at the hands of an enemy whose motivations I find unfathomable.
It breaks my heart to see his coffin, covered in an American flag, brought back to Dover Air Force Base.
And it broke my heart when I called his mother and stumbled through an explanation of how proud I am of the man he grew up to be.
Life goes on, it always does. The sun will continue to rise and set. But it hits me at odd times and I suspect it always will.
Walking outside in the hot sun, under a blue sky, I think of how much Gunnar deserves to see this summer day and how much he deserves to spend time with his family and teach his own children about the beauty of swimming.
There's a weightlessness in swimming that is unparalleled; the feeling of your body gliding, sometimes cutting through the water. The whole world -- all your troubles -- are erased for a brief moment as you hit the water.
I look up at the sky and imagine him doing just that on a hot summer day, a handsome kid squinting in the sun and it makes me feel better for a while.
Gunnar, I looked up to you when we were kids. And I wish I could've known the man you became.
I am so proud of you.