Sara Knutson Cullen's goofy laugh always gave her away.
"You always knew when she was in the room," her mother said.
The laugh is one of many pleasant memories Bill and Lynn Knutson of Sun City Hilton Head are clinging to since their baby, U.S. Army Capt. Sara Knutson Cullen, was killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash March 11 near Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Sara was 27. Her parents do not know what happened. It was a training mission. Five promising young Americans were killed.
Sara was a live wire growing up in the small town of Eldersburg, Md., where everyone knew each other. She loved to sing. She was a competitive dancer. She took karate. She was vice president of the class of 2003 at Liberty High School, where she ran track and tried to master the pole vault.
Her parents were stunned the day she came home from school and said she wanted to go to West Point. They still don't know why, other than that she loved a challenge.
Bill and Lynn supported her, but wanted to make sure she knew what she was getting into. They went together for a daylong campus visit on Sept. 10, 2001.
The next day changed the world. But Sara studied her decision carefully, thought it through, pursued it and honored the family by getting accepted.
That was in March 2003, the same month America invaded Iraq. By the time the class of 2007 tossed hats into the air at graduation -- with the class motto "Always Remember Never Surrender" on an insignia featuring the Twin Towers -- 49 West Point graduates had died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Today, according to The Washington Post's online "Faces of the Fallen" count, 6,648 U.S. service members have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom -- 402 of them in helicopter accidents, 147 of them women.
Sara wrote in her Liberty High yearbook: "I plan to climb the mountain of life and never set foot on a path."
Her mother said Friday: "We have no regrets about her choices."
'ALL THAT IS GOOD'
Sara studied law at West Point, sang in the glee club and joined the judo team.
Unlike high school, she had to study hard. She used index cards to help drill information into her head.
When her parents talked to each other about what branch of the Army she might choose, her mother said she was OK with anything except helicopter pilot or military police. Sara came home and said she'd narrowed down her choices -- to helicopter pilot or military police.
As always, she had an answer. She'd thought it through. Army life is dangerous for everyone, she said. She felt it was her responsibility to be in the thick of it.
Learning to fly the Black Hawk at Fort Rucker, Ala., was her toughest challenge. She finished second in her class. She would later learn to parachute, and her parents went to Fort Benning, Ga., to watch her jump out of an airplane. She was stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and embraced the rugged outdoors there. She was sent on a humanitarian mission to Pakistan after a big flood.
And in Alaska, Sara fell in love with another Black Hawk pilot, Chris Cullen of Quincy, Mass. They were married last Nov. 17 in Eldersburg. At a bridal party, Sara told her mother she had good news and bad news. She was being stationed with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, just minutes from Sun City. But she was being deployed to Afghanistan in January.
Chris left the Army so he could be with Sara. He took a job with a private contractor and was sent to Afghanistan in February.
"I was more worried about him than I was her," Lynn Knutson said.
Sara had a desk job, giving a morning briefing to higher officers.
Brig. Gen. Chris Hughes wrote in a eulogy on Sara's West Point web page:
"Sara provided our staff with sage counsel and advice almost daily during our contingency planning meetings. Sara epitomized all that is good in our Army and our nation. She was proud, intelligent, articulate and always spoke truth to power. But more importantly, she had an incredible sense of humor, contagious smile and made us all laugh, even during dark and difficult times."
Sara and Chris enjoyed coffee in the mornings. He would hold up index cards for her to study for her newest challenge. She'd been appointed to a command position.
Three weeks later, on March 13, Chris came home with Sara and the four other troops killed in the helicopter crash. He was aboard a transport plane with five metal boxes covered with American flags. They landed at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on a cold, quiet, windy night. All five families were there.
"It was pitch black," Lynn said. "I looked up and there was one really bright star. I thought, 'They're telling us they're OK.' "
'GOD BLESS AMERICA'
Bill Knutson was home alone on Monday, March 11. Lynn was in Maryland helping their older daughter, Kelly, prepare for a move to Hawaii. Kelly is also in the Army, studying to be a doctor.
"It was horrible," he says, quietly.
He was asleep in bed when the door bell rang around 11:15 p.m. The dog went nuts, and he muttered under his breath as he stumbled to the door. He flipped on the outdoor light, and saw two men standing there in uniform.
"I opened the door, and said, 'Oh, no.' "
A chaplain and soldier told him what they knew. They said a prayer and left about midnight. Bill saw no reason to call Lynn that late.
In the morning, he sat in a chair with the phone in his hand, asking himself over and over how to tell his wife she had lost her daughter.
"Finally, I thought, 'I'll dial the number and see what happens.' "
Kelly answered the phone. She sensed something was wrong. She handed the phone to her mother.
All Bill could say was: "Sara ..."
"As soon as he said it, I knew," Lynn said.
In retelling it, they cry again.
They've been watched over by Army brass, Sun City friends, the USO in airports, the Red Cross in Maryland, and Friends of the Fallen volunteers at Dover AFB, where Lynn was comforted by a large photograph of the Lowcountry by Hilton Head Island photographer Ben Ham. The Patriot Guard veterans stood at attention in a driving snow during visitation, and at Sara's funeral Mass in her hometown on March 25.
Locally, a memorial Mass will be held for Sara at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton. She is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 15. A tree will be planted in her honor at Fort Stewart on April 18.
At Sara's wedding, the deejay surprised everyone by substituting "God Bless America" for the last dance.
Four months later, Sara's hometown funeral Mass also ended with everyone singing "God Bless America."
And that's what Sara did, too.
She gave her all to bless America.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.