ST. PETERSBURG — Days after her 24th birthday and just months before she was to return home this year, an Army soldier from St. Petersburg has died in Afghanistan.
Spc. Brittany B. Gordon, a 2006 St. Petersburg High School graduate, was the daughter of St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Cedric Gordon and his former wife, Brenda Gordon. On Saturday, the Army informed the family of her death.
"She made a major impact on everyone in her short life," said her aunt, the Rev. Debbie Thompson. "We just thank God for the memories of her we have in our hearts."
Gordon appears to be the first military woman from this area — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties — to die in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's devastating," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who spoke briefly Sunday to Cedric Gordon. "I don't think there can be anything more painful to go through. ... Our thoughts and prayers are with him."
Relatives said the military personnel who visited her mother's St. Petersburg home Saturday night did not provide details of Gordon's death. Gordon's mother spent the morning accepting visitors before leaving Sunday afternoon for Dover, Del., to be on hand for the arrival her only child's remains, scheduled for 11:45 p.m.
Family members who gathered at Gordon's grandmother's home Sunday in St. Petersburg smiled through tears as they recalled the young woman's focused determination, infectious smile and "spirit of gold." Gordon, they said, was an accomplished pianist, basketball player and recreational dancer. But her real passion was helping others.
After high school, Gordon, who had expressed an interest in political science and law, spent a year at the University of Florida before setting her sights on a military career.
Neighbor Wendell Norton said she tried to talk Gordon out of it, but Gordon wouldn't hear of it.
"Her dream was to serve," said Brittany Gordon's cousin, the Rev. Evelyn Thompson. "If I would describe her, she had no fear. She wanted to make a difference. Because that's what military people do: make a difference in the lives of others."
And Gordon put in the work to make it happen.
She immediately embarked on a fitness regimen to ensure she made the military weight limit, relatives said. She graduated from basic training in 2010, and spent a year in Seattle before being sent to Afghanistan.
Some 20,000 of the 205,000 service members currently serving in Afghanistan are women, according to the Department of Defense. Pentagon statistics show that, as of February, 144 military women have been killed and 865 wounded in combat and noncombat incidents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Defense Department says there have been more than 2,000 total military deaths in Afghanistan.
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Gordon worked in military communications, relatives said, doing computer technology. A photo of Gordon, beaming while aboard her first helicopter ride, hints at her adventurous side.
Loved ones had hoped to hear all about it when Gordon, who had celebrated her birthday Oct. 2, returned home in December.
"But God had a better home for her," Evelyn Thompson said.
News of Gordon's death spread quickly through the community.
Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, said he learned the news Sunday afternoon at church.
Cedric Gordon has been a member of the organization's crime committee for years. The two men also are friends.
"It just totally threw me," Haynes said. "For him to experience this, it just feels personal."
Haynes said he remembers Brittany Gordon as a smart woman who looked up to her dad. He was just as proud of her.
"He loved her so much," Haynes said. "He bragged about it, her going into the military. She was one of those people who was very focused. He just saw so much potential in her."
Haynes said he'll remember her smile and positive attitude.
Haynes said Cedric Gordon was one of the first people to comfort him when his sister died about four years ago. He said he hoped to do the same for his friend later Sunday.
"He's done so much for the people in the community," Haynes said. "Now it's time for the community to give back to him and hold him up as much as they can."
Staff writer Will Hobson and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.