Capt. Christopher Petty had "always wanted to be in the Army," said his high school friend Todd Davidson, who now resides in Florida. "It had been a career dream for him," said Davidson, recalling that Petty was unable to fully extend one of his fingers due to an injury and had been quite concerned in high school that this might keep him out of the military.
It appears that his military enthusiasm is what helped Petty buckle down and excel at Marshall University in West Virginia, where he majored in criminal justice and was in the ROTC program.
His friends said that in their days at Madison High School, they may not have been at the top of their class, but they had a good time.
Davidson said he met Petty in 10th grade after Petty and his family moved back from Jamaica. He had lived in many different countries because his father worked for the CIA, and Davidson came from a mobile military family, which he said may have helped them bond. He said they also shared common interests in soccer, lacrosse, football and music with each other and with their other close friend Tim Walsh.
Walsh, who now lives in Virginia Beach, said Petty liked to stay active and particularly enjoyed camping and playing soccer. "And we spent a lot of time hiking out at Great Falls," he said.
"We were always outside, always out and about," said Davidson, recalling camping at the Petty’s cabin in western Virginia, taking road trips to the beach and skipping school to hang out at the Vienna Inn. They also spent a lot of time at the Petty house.
"His parents always opened their doors to us," said Walsh, adding that Petty probably learned his open, welcoming attitude at home. He said he and Davidson joked about Petty's mother, Kathy, being their second mom.
DAVIDSON SAID PETTY drove out of his way to pick him up for school every day in a red Civic in which he had installed speakers that "shook the whole car."
"He'd go out of his way to help people out," he said. "He was always there with a smile and a joke. If you were down, he'd always be there to cheer you up."
"He was very loyal to his friends, and he was very protective of me," said his mother Kathy Petty, who works for the State Department. "All the neighbors really liked him. He was sort of a jokester."
"He was pretty much the all-round American guy," said Davidson. He said Petty "took pride in being an American" and that this was one reason for his career choice.
Walsh said he was never certain why Petty "turned around and started pushing himself and getting good grades" at Marshall. He could only note that "when he set his mind to something, he was going to do it and see it through."
Petty's father, Paul, said his son had struggled with a learning disability that was never clearly defined, but in college he learned how to overcome it.
"For him, it was a combination of structure and self-discipline," said Paul Petty. "He did better taking 18 hours and working part time than taking 12 hours and sleeping in." He also said his son was helped by the structure and early hours of the ROTC program and by the practice of planning his entire week in 15-minute increments. He said Petty was also inspired by Deborah Hunt, whom he met in college and later married.
"Marshall is where Chris really came into his own," said his mother, adding that he graduated with about a 3.4 grade point average.
She said some of his interest in the military may have come from his grandfathers, both of whom served. Her father was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, and Ed Petty was in field artillery like his grandson. Petty also graduated from paratrooper school.
When he graduated from Marshall in '96, he was commissioned into the Army, said his mother.
"He was very proud," said Davidson. "We were all very proud of him." He said he had expected Petty to serve for only a couple of years, but Petty enjoyed his work and stayed on.
"Every time I talked to him, he was excited about what he was doing," said Walsh. Davidson said Petty came to particularly enjoy working with the young men who were placed in his charge. "He loved his troops," said his mother. "He liked what he was doing, and he really thought he was making a difference."
When he was called to go to Iraq, she said, he left willingly to fulfill what he felt was his duty. His only qualms were about leaving his wife, Deborah, and their two sons, Oliver, 3, and Owen, who is now about 3 months old.
"As an officer," said his father, "his colleagues and commanders, to a man, described him as a 'soldier's soldier': dedicated, hard-working, selfless, a problem solver, disciplined, organized and totally professional."
Kathy Petty said her son wrote a letter to the parents of all the men under his supervision in the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, promising to look after their sons.
Walsh said he was not surprised. "He always looked out for his friends, so I'm sure it was along those same lines," he said.
During his second tour of duty in Iraq, on Jan. 5, Chris Petty was killed in Najaf, along with four other men in his unit, when an improvised explosive detonated near their vehicle during combat operations.
He is also survived by his sister Lisa.