KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Mary Aguirre-Garza is the kind of mom who can't help but to gush about her two children -- especially Nathaniel -- whom she calls "the sparkle in my eyes." Her son, Cpl. Nathaniel A. Aguirre, was an airborne combat medic with the 4th Infantry Division, who was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 22, 2006.

Mary's loss and sacrifice -- and that of thousands of others who lost service members in combat will be honored the last Sunday of September on Gold Star Mother's and Family's Day, Sept. 30.

A Mother's Story
Nathaniel was an ordinary kid who loved adventure said Mary, who works for U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz as an outreach services specialist for Parent Central Services and also serves in the community as a volunteer for the USO and Daenner Kaserne chapel. Her son was very confident and social, embodying a gift for making people open up and talk wherever he went. When he would go to parties, "by the end of the evening he would have talked to every person in the room," Mary laughed. "He was like a junior toast master -- never afraid to speak to a crowd."

He was also an active member of the Boy Scouts and was an avid rock climber. "Rock climbing was an expensive hobby for a 16-year-old, so Nathaniel came up with the idea of volunteering at the rock-climbing gym," she said. "So, he volunteered and climbed for free. He even became a belaying instructor, and when the Boy Scout or Girl Scout groups came to the gym, he could be their instructor."

Nathaniel completed projects and earned all the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, but never got a chance to meet the board. When Mary asked if he was disappointed about it, he said, "You know, Mom, I didn't join the Boy Scouts to be an Eagle Scout. I joined for the adventure."

A Call To Duty
For many years, the Boy Scouts fulfilled his yearning for adventure and public service, but after the tragic events of 9/11, Nathaniel wanted to do more. He wanted to serve his country. So, Mary and her husband, Louis, gave permission for their only son to join the U.S. Army Reserves at 17 while still attending high school. After graduation, he enlisted.

"This was not the future we wanted for him. We wanted Nathaniel to go to college," the Gold Star mother recalled. "But at 17, we didn't want to take his dreams away. So, we supported his wishes."

After basic training, Nathaniel became a medic assigned to Bravo Company, 168th Medical Battalion at USAG Yongsan, Korea, and later served at Fort Hood, Texas, with Headquarters, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th ID.

Dec. 12, 2005 -- the day after his 21st birthday, Corporal Aguirre deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We felt excited for him, but somber and unsure. Afterwards, we were fearful, because on the news there was a lot of fighting and deaths in Iraq," she said. "Once we began seeing what was happening there, I was scared for him."

Star's Meaning
Nathaniel served eight months in Iraq before he flew home for his two-week rest and recuperation. Days before his arrival, the Aguirre family began decorating their home with banners and flags, when a new neighbor from across the street approached Mary. After they chatted for a while, they realized both had children who were deployed in combat zones.

"My neighbor noticed that I didn't have a Blue Star Banner, but I didn't know what that was," she recalled. So, her neighbor explained that a Blue Star Banner was given to families of deployed service members in combat locations. She also mentioned that families display a Gold Star Banner in the event their military loved one dies in combat.

Her son's two-week R&R sped by quickly, and before she knew it, Nathaniel was back in Iraq after Labor Day. Mary received two calls that were seared in her memory. The first call came at night, and Nathaniel told her, 'Mom, I'm all right. I'm OK. I had to medevac three times, but I'm OK.' The second call, she couldn't quite understand what he was saying.

Tragic Loss
On Oct. 22, 2006, Mary heard the dreaded knock on her door. It was a sound that preceded tragic news that would change her life forever.

"After they told us that Nathaniel had died, the only thing I can remember saying was, 'I need a Gold Star banner now,'" Mary said tearfully. "That was the day I became a Gold Star Mother."

Her only son was gone, but his legacy would live on through others. Mary was floored by how many lives Nathaniel touched after his death. Many of his Army friends went on to become firefighters, emergency medical technicians or served in other medical professions -- even his sister, Melissa, became a trauma nurse.

"There was always sibling rivalry between Nathaniel and Melissa," Mary remembered fondly, "but he always stepped up to help and protect her when she needed him. It's amazing how she blossomed to follow in Nathaniel's footsteps."

His Legacy Lives On
Humble and generous even after his passing, Nathaniel designated the Boy Scouts of America as one of his death beneficiaries to inspire and encourage the spirit of adventure and community service in other young men.

"He enjoyed himself and learned so much about leadership in the Boy Scouts," his mother said. "He had planned to become a rock-climbing instructor and Boy Scout leader when he got out of the military."

Gold Star mothers and family members in the Rheinland-Pfalz area will be recognized for their sacrifices at an annual event in their honor -- but one seat will be noticeably empty. This year, Mary will be visiting Nathaniel's burial site as well as visiting her family and friends in Texas.

"It was a combination of many things that made my son who he was," she said proudly. "I see myself as a mother wearing two hats -- I wear a hat being Melissa's mother and I wear a Gold Star Mother's hat for Nathaniel. I will always be a mother of two -- my daughter is in Texas and my son is in heaven. I will never forget that."

Americans may never be able to pay back the debt to our fallen Soldiers, but they can support Gold Star mothers and families by sharing the burden of their grief and listening to their stories -- and also by saying thank you with their hearts to those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.