Years before Jared Savage raised his right hand for the oath of enlistment, he was a soldier.
As a boy, he picked out a cot at an Army/Navy surplus store to sleep on. He built a hooch in his mother's backyard in Mineral Wells, tied zip lines from place to place, wore strictly camouflage, once even dug a bunker under her house. (Not surprisingly, that got him in trouble with his superiors.)
"I don't know where he got it from since no one in the family had any ties to the Army," his older sister, Joenell West, said. "But at a very young age, he was all about the Army."
As soon as he was old enough, he got his G.E.D. and enlisted in the service. He became a combat engineer, running the heavy equipment that supported the infantry and armor battalions and deploying twice to Iraq.
In the last days of his second deployment, after 14 months in Mosul and aching for a homecoming to his stomping grounds in Palo Pinto County, Sgt. Savage, 26, father of a young girl, was killed Dec. 4 when a suicide bomber in a pickup detonated the bomb next to his vehicle.
The blast also killed Staff Sgt. Solomon T. Sam, the man training to take Sgt. Savage's place.
Sgt. Savage's body was flown into the Mineral Wells Airport on Wednesday, five days before his unit -- the 103rd Engineer Company, 94th Engineer Battalion -- returns to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Since arriving in the United States, his body has been under guard by a soldier from his unit.
"He does not leave him," West said of the guard. "It's been a great comfort that someone has been by his side the whole way."
During his eight-year career, Sgt. Savage earned the Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge, Army Achievement Medal, and the Purple Heart. The Army promoted him posthumously to staff sergeant.
Born in Peaster but mostly raised in Mineral Wells, Sgt. Savage loved few things more than to go "mudding" in his beloved truck, an old Ford F-150 that he bought and customized into a giant four-wheeler.
"He loved four-wheeler drives, loved automobiles and the outdoors," said Tim Cox, a lifelong friend.
While in Iraq, he communicated with his mother frequently through e-mails, instant messaging and a Web camera. Lately his family had been shocked by his appearance -- he was bulkier than they'd ever seen him.
"He had always been tall and slim," his sister said. "He told us he was going to get to 180. He was working out so much he was getting stretch marks. He was proud of himself for that."
Considering how close he was to returning to them, his family and friends are reeling from his death.
"It's been awhile since I had my best friend," Cox said. "I was finally fixing to get him back. We were all ready for him to come home."
Sgt. Savage is survived by his 3-year-old daughter, Nicole; mother, Jaclyn Park; father, John Savage; and sisters, Jamie Senecal and West.
Services for Sgt. Savage are at 2 p.m. Saturday at Baum-Carlock-Bumgardner Funeral Home, 302 W. Hubbard St., Mineral Wells.