Ashley Nettleton clutched her husband's dog tag in her right hand Sunday, her body shaking, her voice cracking.
She recalled the first time she met Eric Nettleton, a Wichita native who died Wednesday while serving in Afghanistan.
They were at a high school football game, and a mutual friend had been wanting to introduce them.
At the time, he was shy, and he asked his best friend, "What if she doesn't like me?" Ashley Nettleton said.
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But she told their friend to send Eric down, that she wanted to meet him.
There was an "instant connection," Ashley Nettleton said. So much so that her mother turned to her and told her that Eric would be the man she would someday marry.
"I told her that she was crazy," Ashley Nettleton recalled.
But years later — Dec. 23, 2009 — they did marry, surrounded by family and friends at the Sedgwick County Courthouse.
They were "like magnets," Ashley Nettleton said, always connected, no matter how far apart.
Army Sgt. Eric Nettleton, 26, died last week in Dehjawz-e Hasanzay, Afghanistan. He was killed while on foot patrol after an improvised explosive device detonated.
His wife, parents, siblings and in-laws met with media at All Saints Catholic Church on Sunday to remember Mr. Nettleton and also to pay respect to those serving in the military.
"My heart is aching, but I know I have to be strong for him and his soldiers, and his family and mine," Ashley Nettleton said.
She asked those in the community to keep "your thoughts and prayers with those soldiers."
She called her husband a "true American hero" who always had a smile on his face.
She and his family last saw Mr. Nettleton during a mid-tour break around Thanksgiving. With her still in Germany — where his unit was originally stationed — and him in the Middle East, they had talked about where to go for the break and decided it was important to come home to Wichita because his brother Clayton also was deployed overseas.
During the break, they went to Las Vegas, something they had always talked about doing together.
Sandy Nettleton, Mr. Nettleton's mother, said she met her son at the airport when he arrived in Wichita because Ashley Nettleton was still on her way back to the United States.
She watched as people from his flight started walking down the hallway at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. Suddenly, she saw his head poke around the side of someone in front of him who was taller.
"Then he ran up to me and grabbed me," she said.
Mr. Nettleton grew up in the same south Wichita house where his parents have lived for 30 years. He attended All Saints Catholic School and Hamilton Middle School and graduated from Wichita West in 2003.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks inspired him to join the Army, said Clayton Nettleton, who serves in the Air Force.
"It just seemed like he was born for the Army," Clayton Nettleton said.
Mr. Nettleton was the gung-ho type and liked to impersonate Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo," his brother said.
He was the "luckiest fisherman," his father, James, said.
"Eric could always catch something," he said. "He could catch walleye out of the Arkansas River in the middle of August."
Mr. Nettleton attended basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia and then went through airborne school. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
He later deployed to Afghanistan to guard the country's first elections, his brother said. When he returned home, he was assigned to West Point as a member of the honor and color guards.
Mr. Nettleton then requested to be stationed at Fort Riley to be closer to home. In September 2008, he deployed to Iraq with the Big Red 1, the 1st Infantry Division, and returned to Kansas in September 2009.
While he was home, he and his wife married. After a honeymoon in New York City, he was stationed in Germany with the Dragoon War Eagles 1st Squad, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon.
Clayton Nettleton said his brother signed a waiver to be deployed early to Afghanistan so he could be with his squad and served with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment from June until his death.
No funeral arrangements have been made yet, but the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Wounded Warriors Project, the Fisher House Foundation and the Operation Freedom Memorial Foundation planned for Wichita's Veterans Memorial Park.
Sandy Nettleton said it's important for the country to remember that those serving overseas willingly risk their lives.
"We need to not forget that," she said.