Army Spc. William David Dusenbery of Fairview Heights had learned to live with the constant sound of gunfire and the desert dust, and he got used to sleeping on the hard ground and later, a foam pad, in a tent. But it was worth it for a chance to serve his country and spend time around the Black Hawk helicopters.
On Saturday, it was a Black Hawk that brought him down. His family and the woman he intended to marry now are having to face the news that Dusenbery, who always went by the name "Dave, " lost his life in the war in Iraq.
Dusenbery, 30, was killed Saturday along with 16 other soldiers when two Black Hawks crashed in Mosul, Iraq.
"He died doing what he loved, which was being in or near the Black Hawk, " said Jessica Wheat, whom Dusenbery planned to marry.
Dusenbery fought with the 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Dusenbery had set his sights on a lifetime career in the military.
He was in fact born into the military - at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va., where his father, William Dusenbery, served in the Navy. His father and two uncles served in Vietnam, said Michael Dusenbery, an uncle who lives in San Diego and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I think David recognized that he had a lot of freedoms because people had sacrificed before him, " said Michael Dusenbery. "I'm sure he never thought about it, but I'm hopeful that's the same thing people feel about him now."
William David Dusenbery grew up mostly outside Highland and also lived in the Northwest and in California, his uncle said. He joined the military about two years ago and shipped out to Iraq in February.
While he was enthusiastic about helping his country, it was clear to his family that life in Iraq was difficult. "I think the biggest part of that was his separation from his family and the people he cared about, especially his two children, " Wheat said.
Dusenbery has a daughter, 7, and a stepdaughter, 11, who live in California with his estranged wife. Dusenbery's mother, Nancy Metcalf, and his younger brother, Joe Dusenbery, also live in California.
Wheat said the living conditions in Iraq "were substandard for any human being. There were mice in his food and these guys were sleeping on a foam pad."
But Dusenbery took those conditions in stride. "He was first and foremost a U.S. soldier who was there to defend and honor his country and his unit, " Wheat said.
Wheat was acting as a spokeswoman for the family Sunday night while Dusenbery's father and stepmother, Nancy Dusenbery, gathered with friends and church members at their home in Fairview Heights. Wheat has been living there while Dusenbery was in Iraq.
"It's overwhelming, so much all at once, " Wheat said. "I've lost the most important thing in my life."
Shane Anthony of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.