Jordan Phaneuf, 17

Army Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Phaneuf II, 38

Died Dec. 15, 2006

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From the start, Jordan Phaneuf knew exactly where she wanted to go to college: Becker, a small, historic campus in Worcester, Mass.

Jordan, who wants to be an animal doctor, loved the school’s highly touted pre-veterinary program. She also liked that Becker is just an hour’s drive from her family, which was rocked when a roadside bomb killed her father, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph E. Phaneuf II, on Dec. 15, 2006, in Afghanistan.

Jordan was 9 at the time. She remembered the early morning knock at the door, the dogs barking, her sister yelling, “What’s going on?”

She is 17 now, a willowy senior, with long hair colored deep red and a soft spot for strays. She looks after a cat named Chase that she and her family found in the woods near their house in rural Eastford, Conn.

Becker might have been a reach a few years ago, when Jordan got mostly C’s her freshman year at Woodstock Academy. But now Jordan was getting mostly A’s and B’s in honors Italian, advanced English and advanced anatomy. Her GPA had improved to a 2.6. She plays guard on the varsity basketball team — not a starter, but she likes to shoot three-pointers from the baseline corners of the court. She also volunteers with a nonprofit that helps feed poor families.

The last thing Jordan needed for the Becker application was her essay. She knew it would somehow be about her dad, who once surprised her at a basketball game by walking in after he’d been away at a training camp for two months. She dashed off the court to hug him, and the game was halted.

She still keeps his photo above her bed, another emblazoned on a candle on her dresser, and a third photo plastered on her Twitter page of him clad in his camouflage kissing her as a child. Her college essay, she felt, had to touch on his death.

But how?

A stranger at the wake bent down to tell Jordan “how great of a man my father was.”

Jordan thought about his wake, eight years ago on Dec. 26. There was a receiving line at the funeral home, which was decorated with poinsettias. There was a man she didn’t know who knelt down in front of her as she stood with her older brother Ryan, now 23, and older sister, Danielle, now 19.

Sitting at her desk in her tan-walled bedroom, she began tapping out her memories on her Surface tablet: the mourners walking by, telling her she was too young to lose her father, how sorry they were. Their faces were a blur. Then the man bent down, wearing a suit and tie.

“While holding my hand, he looks at me and tells me how great of a man my father was, how he is such a hero for giving his life,” Jordan wrote. “He tells me how my father didn’t just do this for my family, but what my father did was also for him and everyone else in this country.”

More than anything after her father’s death — meeting President George W. Bush or reading a letter from another soldier who was with her dad in his final moment — Jordan remembers this man.

She slapped on a title: “The Man Who Changed My Life.” Her English teacher liked the essay, but thought the title was too cliched. So Jordan came up with a better one: “The Stranger.”

Left and right: Jordan Phaneuf with her dad, Joseph E. Phaneuf. Center: Jordan with a homemade sign. (Family photos)

Jordan’s mother, Michele Phaneuf, didn’t know who Jordan was describing and wasn’t aware that he’d made such an impression until she read the essay. Jordan longed to thank him, writing that “he was the one who made me realize that my father’s death was not just a tragedy, but it turned him into a hero.”

After she submitted the application to Becker, Jordan called home nearly every day, asking her mother or soon-to-be stepfather whether anything had arrived in the mail. One day in late November, her mother’s fiance reported there was a package from Becker. Jordan was at a friend’s house.

“Could you read it?” she asked, putting the phone on speaker.

“Congratulations!” he read. “I am delighted to offer you admission to the Bachelors of Science in Veterinary Science with a Pre-Veterinary Concentration program for the Fall 2015 semester.”

Jordan was in.

Faces of the Fallen

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