That tight feeling in his chest, the one he'd lived with for more than a year while his younger brother served in Afghanistan, was finally gone.
Taylor was home.
To welcome him back, Greg Hotzoglou threw an "All-American barbecue family fun day" at his Deer Park home last Labor Day, with burgers, hot dogs, macaroni salad and cold beer. Dozens of family members and friends joined the celebration.
Months later, on April 29, Spc. Taylor Hotzoglou, 22, was gunned down -- not in an ambush half a world away, but in his car on the side of the road in Clarksville, Tenn.
Police, who believe Hotzoglou was a victim of random violence, have arrested two teenagers in connection with the slaying.
Those who knew the Long Island soldier are struggling to come to grips with their sorrow.
"How do you not understand this guy is in the Army and protects your freedom?" Greg Hotzoglou, 29, said Tuesday of the accused killers. "How that concept doesn't mean anything to you, I just don't understand that."
All friends and relatives can do is pay their respects to the sweet, fun-loving young man who dreamed of serving his country.
"It's all he ever wanted to do," his brother said.
Taylor Hotzoglou grew up on the North Shore in Rocky Point. He had three brothers and a sister. Outgoing, he'd perform stunts on his bike and skateboard.
"He's always been fearless -- kind of a daredevil," said Richard Norrby, 52, a local youth leader and father figure to Hotzoglou, who never knew his real dad.
Greg Hotzoglou said his brother wasn't fond of school, but he was polite and respectful, never missing a day. His warm personality attracted a lot of friends.
After he graduated from Rocky Point High in 2007, nobody had any doubts what he'd do. As a young teenager, he talked a lot about enlisting, drawn to a soldier's life of "action and bravery," Norrby said.
"At 17, he begged us to sign him up," Greg Hotzoglou said. "Obviously, we said, 'No way.' "
But when his next birthday came, he went to an Army recruiter. He did basic training in Georgia and was stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. The family knew he was headed for combat overseas.
"It was a gradual buildup of pressure in my chest until the day he deployed," Greg Hotzoglou said. "We were really scared for him. Not just because we knew he was going to war, which was scary enough, but because we knew what kind of person he was, and that he'd sacrifice his life to help someone else."
In August 2010, Taylor Hotzoglou arrived in Afghanistan as an infantry soldier in Whiskey Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team.
Family members are only now learning what his life was like over there. A member of Hotzoglou's unit recently told them that he was quick to man the machine gun atop their combat vehicle during a firefight.
Stories like that never came from Hotzoglou himself.
"He didn't want to tell us a lot of things. He didn't want to worry us," his brother said. "They did see a lot of action . . . I know he lost one of his good friends."
When he returned to the States unscathed in August 2011, the family felt a collective sense of relief.
"One of the happiest days of my life was when he came home," said Amanda Talbot, 24, a cousin.
Hotzoglou, in his camouflage uniform, surprised her by showing up at Friendly's in Miller Place, where she worked as a waitress. He ordered his usual: mozzarella sticks, turkey melt, strawberry shake.
That sense of normalcy didn't last long.
Late on April 28, as Hotzoglou prepared to meet friends for a drink, there was a knock on the door of his Clarksville apartment. Two young men, saying they were stranded, asked to borrow a phone, according to the soldier's roommate, whose account was confirmed by police. The strangers said they were unable to reach their friend and asked for a ride.
Hotzoglou, going that direction, agreed. At 12:30 a.m., police responding to a reported car accident found the soldier's body in the driver's seat. He had been shot several times. On May 3, investigators arrested Giovanni Johnson, 18, and a 17-year-old male. Both are facing murder charges. Police have not released a motive.
Hotzoglou's funeral was held Monday. He was buried at Sea View Cemetery in Mount Sinai.
Norrby said Taylor Hotzoglou should be remembered by the three words tattooed on his chest: Loyalty, trust, respect.
"He was a hero," Norrby said, "even though he didn't die in the war."