SPOKANE, Wash – It's been an unbelievably difficult week for the family of Sgt. Matthew Stiltz. Exactly one week ago, they learned he died in Afghanistan, at the age of 26, on his third tour of duty, serving the country he loved.
His mother, Terri, still has two voicemails from him she saved from over the summer, and played them back once again.
"Hey Mom, I was just calling to tell you I got your packages, I really appreciate it," Sgt. Matthew Stiltz told his mother over the phone before deployment.
At their Spokane home, Terri and Mark Stiltz shared their happier memories, photos from his childhood, and family stories.
"That's actually one of my favorite memories," Terri said, pointing to a photo of all three of her kids, with their grandfather dressed up as Santa – himself, a WWII ex-POW.
Another fond memory: at just 21 months old, Matthew crawled into the family car, somehow put it in gear, and crashed into the garage.
"That's actually one of our favorite memories," his father, Mark said.
As young as 5, he dressed up as a soldier for Halloween, and played soldiers around the house with his older brother, Jeff.
But Matthew Stiltz evolved, from a child playing a soldier to a man serving our country as one.
"When those Iraqi children were talking to Matt, I know they were talking to a friend," Mark said, pointing to another of his favorite photos.
He already served two deployments in Iraq, and when his mother found out he was heading off to this third this summer, this time in Afghanistan, it was hard.
"I just prayed for his safety, this is what he does - did. This was his life, this is what he wanted to do, he was proud of what he was doing," she said.
But the hard reality of seeing his body return home this morning is beginning to set in.
"When we saw his casket brought off the plane, it brings reality home, it's not so surreal," his father said.
"In the back of your mind, you don't really expect to get this kind of news, you pray you don't get this kind of news," his mother added.
They learned of his death from his wife, Brooke, calling from Kansas where he was based. Terri said she didn't believe it, kept saying no, and grabbed a photo of him off the wall, hugging it tight.
"If you have to lose a child, you want to lose them the way they want to be lost, and this is a very honorable way to go," Mark said, "I'm just very proud of him."
His final words to his parents, still kept on the voicemail message:
"I love ya'll, bye."