Andrew, Jeremiah and Gabriel Gutierrez, 17, 11 and 9

Army Staff Sgt. David Gutierrez, 35

Died Dec. 25, 2009

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Andrew Gutierrez steeled himself for Christmas as soon as the stores started blaring carols in November.

Those holiday songs, the piney smell of fresh-cut Christmas trees, the gingerbread giddiness of other kids making lists of stuff they covet — they’re always hard for Andrew to take. The 17-year-old wants one gift more than any other: “I want my dad back. I just want my dad.”

He and his younger brothers, Jeremiah, 11, and Gabriel, 9, want Christmas back, too — a day forever marred by the two soldiers who knocked at their door in Seattle on the morning of Dec. 25, 2009.

Their mom, Patty Gutierrez, was cooking Christmas breakfast, waiting for her husband’s Skype call from Afghanistan so he could see the boys open their presents. But Army Staff Sgt. David Gutierrez, 35, had been hit by a rooftop-explosive device in Howz-e Madad on Christmas Eve and died the next day.

Before that Christmas morning, the Gutierrez brothers loved the season, just as their dad did. He was a big, beefy man — a nightclub bouncer and amateur football player who joined the military for the money and kept reenlisting as his family grew. But at Christmas, he was more kid than warrior, obsessed with getting the perfect tree.

“He wanted one that was big. And full,” Andrew said. “It took forever to find the right one. One time, it was so big, it wouldn’t fit on the car, and we had to carry it home.”

Once the tree was up, the decorating ritual began. Dad’s Oakland Raiders ornaments. The giant, billowy angel tree-topper. The little American flags.

“He put up a step-stool so I could reach the top,” Andrew remembered.

“Dad would want us to be happy.”

After Gutierrez’s death, the family moved from Seattle to his home town of Gilroy, Calif., where Andrew is a slight high school senior, with head-to-toe black clothes and long floppy bangs. His bedroom is filled with piles of notebooks, sketches, drawings and graphic design projects that feature dragons, flames, monsters from an alternate universe. He hopes to go to an art school in San Francisco next year.

Christmas, now, is an artificial tree. The family can’t stomach the smell, the mess and the clean-up of a fresh-cut evergreen.

They assembled the fake version right next to Gutierrez’s medals. His Purple Heart reflected the tree’s white lights. They put up the Oakland Raiders ornaments. And, as they’ve done in previous years, they took a Christmas picture. One year it was with Gutierrez’s boots, another year with his dog tags. This year it was the family holding a picture of him.

They continued trying to create Christmas traditions that are their own, without forgetting the things their dad loved. Those special chocolate cookies that Patty invented when she forgot an ingredient. Watching Gutierrez’s favorite movie, “Elf.”

But they still weren’t able to make it to Dec. 25. On the 23rd, they opened their presents. On Christmas Day, they woke up, had a quiet breakfast and went to Gavilan Hills Memorial Park with a rainbow bouquet of flowers.

Left and right: Gabriel, Jeremiah and Andrew Gutierrez with their dad, David, and mom, Patty. The boys' dad loved Christmas. (Family photos)

They spent most of the day at the grave, surrounding the shiny, black marker. Gabriel brought his new metal detector. When he found a bottle cap in a grassy field near his dad’s grave, he thought it was a sign.

“Dad used to collect bottle caps!” Gabriel exclaimed.

Andrew used to collect them, too, but stopped after Gutierrez died.

After the cemetery, they went home and set the table for dinner. Patty’s boyfriend, Joe, was coming over, with one of his daughters and the guy she’s dating.

Patty, 41, made chicken coated in crushed Ritz crackers, green bean casserole, linguine, mac and cheese and crescent rolls. They had cakes, cookies and hot cocoa. There was laughter, conversation. Almost normal, but not quite.

Waking up the next morning, already done with the Christmas, “is a relief to be honest,” Patty said. “Five years later, and it’s still a nice feeling to be done with it.”

For her and her sons, it will never be a day filled with pure joy. “The boys and I,” Patty said, “we just have to think, ‘What would David do?’ ”

Andrew was certain he knew. “Dad,” he said, “would want us to be happy.”

Faces of the Fallen

Find out more about the service members who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.