Last spring, 8-year-old Brooke Nyren picked out a teddy bear at the Dulles Town Center store Pawsenclaws, dressed it up in military fatigues and recorded these words for the bear to speak: "You're the best Daddy in the world. I love you." Then she packed it up and shipped it to Iraq, attention Army Staff Sgt. Nathaniel J. Nyren.
The Father's Day gift made it to Nyren, Brooke's dad and her hero. The Christmas gift she had packed up and was planning to send -- a book, Girl Scout cookies and toiletries -- would not.
Nyren, of Reston, died Tuesday in Baghdad when a car driven by Iraqi civilians accidentally slammed into the military vehicle he was driving in for maintenance, sending it rolling and killing Nyren instantly, said his stepmother, Julie Nyren.
Family members said Nyren, 31, was a quick wit who packed a big heart into his 5-foot-6 frame.
"He was really a nice person that took a lot of teasing and ribbing from other folks because of his size," Julie Nyren said. "But they liked him all the better for it because he was able to take it. He'd tease right back."
A 1991 graduate of South Lakes High School, Nyren joined the Army in 1995 after attending Virginia Tech and Northern Virginia Community College for a few years. The military appealed to the sense of order Nyren had honed as a Boy Scout and the stepson of a military man, Julie Nyren said. It was also a permanent job that would help him get out of debt.
The active military lifestyle fit Nyren, a high school wrestler, avid golfer, baseball fan and "all-around sports guy," said Courtney Nyren, the soldier's former wife.
The two married the same year he joined the military, and after basic training at Fort Knox, Nyren was sent Germany. During the three years he and his family spent there, Nyren completed a six-month tour in Macedonia and Brooke was born. It was the beginning of a tight father-daughter relationship, Courtney Nyren said.
"It was a very, very close relationship her and her dad shared," Courtney Nyren said. "She idolized him."
Nyren returned briefly to Fort Knox, then spent several years as a recruiter in Pittsburgh. He and Courtney divorced in 2002, and Nyren married Rebecca Nyren in December 2003.
Nyren was assigned to the Army's 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Tex.
After being deployed to Iraq in March, he wrote letters to his daughter often and called home at least twice a month, his stepmother said. Nyren's time in Iraq was tough, she said. He spent many months helping to reconstruct an oil refinery outside Baghdad, and there were many "near-misses," she said. But when Nyren called home Christmas Day, she said, he was cheerfully enjoying the coffee and CDs his family had sent.
He said he was looking forward to February, when his tour in Iraq would end. He hoped to return to work as a recruiter, Julie Nyren said.
"He's not a die-hard Army kind of guy. That just wasn't him," she said. "But he did take care of his troops very well. And I'm pretty sure they respected him for that."