When James L. Pettaway Jr. returned from Iraq last year, his aunt and uncle were planning to pick him up at the airport. But a few days before they expected him, Barbara Pettaway heard someone rattling the doorknob and scolded the child she assumed was on the other side of the door. More rattling. She fussed some more.
Then he jumped in the door, still in his camouflage fatigues, laughing at her.
"He popped in," she said, just as he always did when he lived with them, stopping in with a bag of fried chicken or some gum for the kids when they least expected him, always glad to be with family.
He came home expecting to stay at his job as drill instructor at the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp in Jessup. But it wasn't long before Pettaway, an Army staff sergeant, got new orders: He had to go back to Iraq.
On Aug. 27, he was badly injured after an accident near Fallujah, according to Army Public Affairs.
He died Sunday at a military hospital in Texas.
Family members said they were told that his truck was hit by an explosive, then flipped off a bridge. He spent weeks at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, most of his body burned, wrapped like a mummy except for his face, relatives said. He was 37, a divorced father from Baltimore with an 11-year-old son, Brandon Pettaway. He had been assigned to the Army Reserve's 223rd Transportation Company of Norristown, Pa.
He will be buried in a family cemetery in Southampton, N.Y., where he grew up and where his aunt and uncle still live. An honor guard from the boot camp will attend the funeral, according to a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Correction.
"We're a strange crew. We visit people at the cemetery," Barbara Pettaway said. "Bring flowers, sit down, cry if you want to cry, and talk to the ones you know would be there to listen to you."
He always listened, she said, and helped her when she was upset.
He joined the Army after high school and served for years before returning to civilian life.
"He didn't feel good about going back" to Iraq, said Linda Pettaway, an aunt.
Pettaway was a big man, broad-shouldered and strong, a good-looking guy who was always turned out -- sneakers had to match the shirt, sweat suit had to be expensive, pants had to be just so, and he liked to wear Kangol caps to match his black or gray suits, Barbara Pettaway said. "He really thought he was something else."
He loved jogging, played basketball in high school and went to any game he could get into: New Jersey Nets or New York Knicks, if he could get tickets, or his nephew's and nieces' school games.
The kids loved him and would reach for snacks when he came, or climb in his shiny black Ford Expedition for a trip to McDonald's, hip-hop, jazz or R&B playing, Barbara Pettaway said.
"He was like a big brother," said Sgt. Carroll Washington, who served with him at Fort Knox and worked with him at the boot camp. "He always pointed me in the right direction."
When he left this time, he asked his aunt and uncle -- no matter what happened -- to meet him at the airport when he came back.
"Last night, I thought he might just come in the door," Barbara Pettaway said. ". . . Just pop in."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.