CLEVELAND (AP) - Army Pvt. Brandon Sloan had dropped out of high school and was working odd jobs when he decided he wanted something more for himself.
He told his family at Thanksgiving dinner in 2001 he was joining the Army.
Those who knew him well say that before he was killed in Iraq, the Army had given him new life.
Sloan (pictured, above) enlisted in the Army in March 2002, at the same time U.S. soldiers were charging into Afghanistan to battle al-Qaida and Taliban forces, and even though his friends urged him not to go.
He took pride in finding he had what it took to make it through boot camp: "It's like prison but you get paid," he wrote in a letter to a friend.
A year later, the 19-year-old from Bedford Heights was killed after Iraqi forces ambushed members of the 507th Maintenance Company near Nasiriyah. Army Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland was killed in the same ambush.
Sloan's body was returned to Cleveland in a sealed casket. His father, the Rev. Tandy Sloan, was told only that his son's body was "unviewable."
Sloan's divorced parents said they haven't been told what happened to him and the other soldiers whose bodies were found during the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.
But both have made a separate peace with his death.
Sloan was the son and the grandson of preachers. His shyness never kept him from inviting his closest friends to worship with him at Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church.
"He used to always talk about going to church," recalled his friend, Cleo Johnson, who went with him many times. "He always wanted us to go with him and hear the Word."
His guests helped fill the pews at the small church. "He was trying to reach out and bring people into the fold. Teens don't always do that," his father said.
But Sloan was less enthusiastic about school.
"High school was not for him," said his mom, Kimberly. "He always said, 'I'm not feeling it.'"
When he announced he was thinking of going into the service, his Uncle Phillip quizzed him: "You sure this is something you want to do?"
"Yeah," he replied. "I want to defend my country."
Sloan's father was all for it. He believed his son was wasting his potential.
His mother was lukewarm. The threat of war loomed. "That's what he wanted to do and I honored it," she said.
She told him she was proud of him for getting his GED in just four months, and she could see his future taking shape. "I imagined him probably making a career out of being in the service."
It was while in the Army that Sloan began to mature. He became more self-assured.
"When he graduated, you had to be happy for him," his father said. "He was proud. He had really bought into the military, the whole thing. He didn't feel cheated in any way. That's the lasting impression I have of my son."
A week before his death, Sloan's mother sent him a care package. It was returned to her unopened a few days after his funeral.
"Brandon knew how much I loved him," she said. "I believe in telling my children that I love them. You just never know when it's going to be the last time."
When he died, more than 400 mourners crowded into his funeral service at his father's church. A chain of people lined the route from the church to Lake View Cemetery where he was buried. Former prisoners of war came from faraway states to salute the procession.
Some people who knew Sloan say they're angry at the Army for not explaining more of what happened. Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd said last week the investigation is ongoing, and information will be released to families after the facts are known.
But the Rev. Sloan chooses to spend his energies honoring Sloan's memory and is creating a scholarship fund to encourage youths to act courageously, as he believes his son did.
"I admire him," Sloan said softly, after looking at a 2002 letter in which Brandon asked Cleo to tell their friends he was praying for them every night. "He's witnessing to his friends, talking to them about prayer. He's not ashamed. That's the true mark of a Christian. That just says everything."