Back when he was a senior in high school in Monroe, Ga., Joe Helton told his mother he thought the Air Force Academy in Colorado was too far away. He had three sisters. His parents were divorced.
"He felt like he had to stay around home and take care of the girls and me," his mother, Jiffy Helton, said Wednesday night on the phone from Georgia. "He felt like he was the man of the house."
She said go.
"I told him," she said, "he had a life to lead."
Helton, 24, died Tuesday in Iraq while on patrol when a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad, the Department of Defense announced Wednesday. He was in the 6th Security Forces Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base. He had been stationed at MacDill since 2007, base spokeswoman Rebecca Heyse said.
This was his first tour in Iraq. He volunteered to go.
Col. Lawrence Martin of the 6th Air Mobility Wing called Helton "an amazing airman," saying in a statement: "We are deeply saddened by his loss and very proud of his service."
"He was very, very dedicated to what he did," his mother said. "He firmly believed in what they were doing over there."
Helton came from a military background. His dad was in the Army. So were three of his uncles. His mom was in the Navy. Both of his grandfathers served. When he was little, his mother said, he drew battleships and fighter jets.
He grew up in the Panhandle before moving to Georgia when he was in the first grade.
He ran cross country at Monroe Area Comprehensive High School and was an all-league soccer player. He graduated in 2003 with a 4.2 GPA and was ranked fifth in his class.
He finished at the Air Force Academy in 2007.
Aaron Sanchez, 25, his best friend, said Wednesday night on the phone from pilot training in Corpus Christi, Texas, that Helton was "the perfect Air Force Academy cadet."
Helton lived in a Channelside condo last year before going to Iraq in January. His job was to help and train Iraqi police.
He also blogged during his time over there. The blog, he wrote, was "a window to my world for communication with family and friends." The title: Fleeting Words.
The Iraqis he met, he said in a blog post earlier this year, were "just like us on a basic, human level."
He was an Atlanta Falcons football fan. He liked the TV show The Office and the movie The Shawshank Redemption. He made delicious baklava. He was trying to learn some Arabic.
On the phone Wednesday night, Jiffy Helton said her son was laid-back, funny, smart and easy to get along with. He cooked, she said, and he cleaned, and he had "a quiet, commanding presence."
"If someone walked into a room and had a question, nine times out of 10 he'd be the person they would approach," she said. "He just looked like he knew the answers."
She last saw him last Christmas. He was going to be home for Thanksgiving. His tour was set to end in January.
His body got to Ramstein, Germany, Wednesday afternoon, and to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware late Wednesday night. 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton would have turned 25 later this month.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.