This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows Senior...

This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson in a Dec. 24, 2019, photo. Credit: AP

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — Just two days before a sheriff's deputy in Florida shot him dead, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson called home to find out what his 10-year-old sister wanted for her birthday.

It was a typical gesture for the 23-year-old from Atlanta, who doted on the girl and was devoted to helping her, a younger brother and his mom prosper, his family says.

“He was trying to give me everything that I never could get for myself,” his mother, Chantemekki Fortson, said Thursday at a news conference in Fort Walton Beach, where her son was living when he was killed.

He was her “gift,” she said, the man who taught her to love and forgive and served as her co-worker and counselor.

An Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy shot Fortson last Friday. Sheriff's officials say he acted in self-defense while responding to a call of a disturbance in progress at an apartment complex. But civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the Fortson family, has accused the deputy of going to the wrong apartment and said the shooting was unjustified.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.

At Thursday's news conference, Chantemekki Fortson held a large framed portrait of her son in dress uniform. He joined the Air Force in 2019, the same year he graduated from Ronald McNair High School — a majority Black school in metro Atlanta’s DeKalb County where roughly half of students don't graduate in four years.

The family of Botham Jean hug after unveiling the street...

The family of Botham Jean hug after unveiling the street sign for Botham Jean Boulevard which is named after their slain son and brother in Dallas on Saturday, March 27, 2021. Credit: AP/Juan Figueroa

Air Force service was a lifelong dream, and Fortson rose to the rank of senior airman. He was stationed at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach.

“Where we come from, we don’t end up where Roger ended up,” his mother said.

Fortson, a gunner aboard an AC-130J, earned an Air Medal with combat device, which is typically awarded after 20 flights in a combat zone or for conspicuous valor or achievement on a single mission. An Air Force official said Fortson’s award reflected both — completing flights in a combat zone and taking specific actions during one of the missions to address an in-flight emergency and allow the mission to continue. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide additional details that had not been made public.

But his service, like almost everything else he did, had a larger purpose.

The family of Botham Jean hug after unveiling the street...

The family of Botham Jean hug after unveiling the street sign for Botham Jean Boulevard which is named after their slain son and brother in Dallas on Saturday, March 27, 2021. Credit: AP/Juan Figueroa

“He was trying to help his family have a better life,” Crump said Thursday.

That meant serving as a role model for his 16-year-old brother, André, his mom said, saving up to try to buy her a house and getting her a new car. His nickname was “Mr. Make It Happen.”

Chantemekki Fortson recalled that her son, then in high school, accompanied her in the ambulance to the hospital when she was giving birth to her daughter and tried to tell the doctor how to deliver the baby.

The girl and his brother were always in his thoughts.

André was not coping well, his father, Keith Vann, said in a phone interview Friday.

“He’s basically like a zombie, some people say,” he said.

Vann remembered Fortson as a quiet boy who didn't get in any trouble.

“He was very respectful,” he said.

Fortson was assigned to the 4th Special Operations Squadron as a special missions aviator, where one of his roles was to load the gunship’s 30 mm and 105 mm weapons.

Chantemekki Fortson said her son was injured while loading a plane and was in such severe pain he thought he would die. But he told his mom he had to push through for his brother and sister.

He was also by her side when she got into an accident a short time later and needed to go to the emergency room.

“That’s the kind of gift he was,” she said. "They took something that can never be replaced.”

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