Jason Santora and his little sister Gina had always been tight. When Gina turned 16 and their parents couldn't throw her a party due to personal problems, Jason, then 20, stepped up to plan the event.
With his modest wages from a job with a pool company, he sprung for the cost of her birthday bash.
"I danced with my brother," Gina Santora, 21, of Medford, said Sunday, just hours after seeing his flag-draped coffin reach Dover Air Force Base. "I always said that every girl should have a big brother like him."
Sgt. Jason Santora, 25, a U.S. Army Ranger who grew up in Farmingville, was killed in action Friday in a restive Afghan province south of the capital.
Santora, who enlisted in 2006 and had deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, was two months into his tour of duty as a team leader in Logar Province when he was "seriously wounded in an engagement with an enemy force" Friday, according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
According to NATO's International Security Assistance Force, two American service members were gravely wounded and later died in a gunfight with five insurgents, including a "suicide attack commander," in Logar Province.
A Special Operations Command spokesman could not confirm Sunday whether Santora was one of those two. But Santora's relatives said military officials told them that he was engaged in that battle. Sgt. Ronald Kubik, 21, of New Jersey, also was killed.
Santora graduated from Sachem North High School in 2003. Family members said he had good grades and liked to play football and soccer.
His father, Gary Santora, 52, of Medford, said he was watching the news on TV early Friday when he saw a ticker item on the deaths of two troops and five militants in Afghanistan. "I didn't think twice of it," he said. "As long as I don't have any knocks at the door, I know he's OK. And that morning, I got that knock.
"They start off with, 'We regret to inform you,' " he said of the visit by the uniformed military. "Once they said that, I knew that he wasn't just hurt. They don't come to the door if your son's hurt."
Santora's family said he was so committed to his comrades in arms that he declined to return to Long Island this month after his grandmother died.
"He said, 'If I leave now, it's going to be difficult for my team, and I can't leave them,' " his mother, Theresa Santora, 49, of Massapequa Park, said. "I knew he made up his mind to be an Army Ranger. I wasn't happy about it. If I could've talked him out of it, I would have, but he loved what he did."
Santora was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga. His relatives said he'd been deployed six times, four in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
In the past year, Logar Province, which has access routes to Kabul, has seen an uptick in insurgent activity as the enemy seeks to gain a foothold in and around the capital, according to published reports.
Sunday, NATO-led forces captured a Taliban subcommander and killed several insurgents in Logar, Western military officials said. Hours later, hundreds of people blocked a main road in the province and protested what they said were civilian deaths in NATO operations, according to The Associated Press.
"Things really need to change in this world," Santora's mother said. "It's really sad that our young men have to go over there and be killed and come home in a casket. It's my baby."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Sunday.