LAUREL, Md. - Gene Mills walked out his front door on Father's Day 2008. He grew up in Laurel, graduated from High Road Academy, and before he turned 18 his dad signed the papers for him to join the U.S. Marines. It's a mission he had since 9-11.
"A marine recruiter walked him out this door and of course I didn't see him for 13 weeks afterwards, but as soon as that door shut I cried like a baby," said Gene Mills, Jr., Lance Corporal Mills' father.
After boot camp in Paris Island, SC, Mills went on his first deployment to southern Afghanistan in 2009. His second started five months ago in the Helmand province.
He was able to call home more frequently, giving his father and younger brother some ease. The last call came three days before the dreadful knock.
"And then he said, one more mission pop and I'll be home. And then he always ends with I love you pops and of course I tell him I love him back. And then the world changed," said Mills, fighting back tears.
Dog tags now hang around Mills' neck. The family is sharing stories, like the one that shows Mills was a man before his time.
"I said let's help Mr. Bob with his groceries because he would carry his groceries with his crutches. And I never had to say a word again. He would see Mr. Bob's van pull up and he would say 'dad I'm going to help Mr. Bob,'" said Mills.
That same spirit is how he served his country and why his younger brother still wants to join the marines.
"He did something that he always wanted to do, and he did something that not many people would even try to do and now he's in a better place right now," said Jake Mills, Lance Corporal Mills' younger brother.
His 10-year-old cousin Hannah has written a letter.
"You were the perfect role model for me and everyone else," she said.
The flags at Laurel City Hall are flying at half staff until Mills is laid to rest. His body was brought back to Dover Air Force Base on Monday.
"In most cases, they're only heroes when they die. And they were heroes way before that. And we need to remind ourselves of that," said Mills.
Gene Mills, Jr. is a retired Prince George's County Police corporal.
A police procession is being planned for Friday morning to bring his son from Dover to a funeral home in Elkridge. The details of a viewing and funeral are still being arranged.