They had seen him off only three years ago - parents, teachers and staff at Brentwood High School - with commencement day wishes for a bright future.
Yesterday, many of the same people gathered again for a Veterans Day ceremony in the school auditorium, but this time, to mark his death.
They came to remember Raheen Heighter, a square-jawed varsity football player who graduated with the Class of 2000, joined the Army, and was killed in an ambush July 24 in the Iraqi desert north of Al Hawd.
"He was a good kid," said Mary DiMarzo, who has seen 10 senior classes come and go in her years as a hall monitor.
"It's sad to see them die so young," she said, dabbing away tears from her reddened eyes.
Heighter, 22, who lived in North Bay Shore, attended Brentwood High School for grades 10-12.
Heighter, who served a tour in Korea before he was shipped to Iraq last spring, was a member of the 2/230th Field Artillery of the 101st Airborne Division when he was killed.
The memorial service drew about 300 people, including U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington). Israel told the audience Heighter had made a "noble decision" when he joined the Army.
His death has shaken members of the Brentwood staff, many of whom take the plight of their students as a personal challenge. Many students in the district come from lower-income, immigrant or single-parent homes, and face hardships that teachers help struggle to overcome.
Children who respond positively warm the hearts of some teachers. Betty Greene, a former teacher who had Heighter in her eighth-grade home economics class, said Heighter was one of them.
She recounted an instance she believes helped shape Heighter into a respectful and tractable child.
Heighter had gotten into a bit of trouble, and Greene had called his mother, Cathy Heighter. Not only did she make it her business to come to school, she followed her son from class to class, sitting in and observing his behavior.
"Where he went, she went," said Greene, now a dean at the high school. "She even sat at his table during lunch period."
"That was the quietest lunch period we'd ever had, because children don't want to mess with someone's mother," Greene said. "And after that, there were no more problems with Raheen."
On the auditorium stage, behind the podium where Greene was speaking, Cathy Heighter smiled. "I like when she tells that story," she said later. "Because it's so true."
Cathy Heighter thought the worst was over. Her son had told her so.
Pfc. Raheen Tyson Heighter was in Iraq with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, and in dozens of letters to his family in Bay Shore, he wrote assuringly that he was fine and urged them not to worry.
"Time goes by like a continuous Groundhog Day over here," he wrote to his mother in a letter dated June 20. "In the beginning, there was a lot of bloodshed, but now it's all over ... The good news is I will be coming home in September, October at the latest."
At 22, he had a road map for his life and was driven to succeed -- serve in the military, go to college, start a business and take care of his mother.
But his hopes and his mother's were destroyed Thursday when the Brentwood High School graduate was killed in an early-morning attack north of Baghdad, becoming the first Long Island soldier to die in the war. In April, a civilian worker, Robert Grimm, a veteran of the Setauket Fire Department, was killed in a jeep accident. Grimm, 63, was in Iraq working for a company contracted to clean up oil spills.
Heighter, assigned to the 2/230th Field Artillery, was one of three soldiers killed while traveling in a convoy to Qayyarah, in northern Iraq. Military officials identified the other two soldiers as Cpl. Evan Asa Ashcroft, 24, of West Hills, Calif., and Staff Sgt. Hector R. Perez, 40, of Corpus Christi, Texas, both with Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry.
Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the 101st Airborne Division is a rapid-deployment air assault division trained to go anywhere in the world.
Young and hungry, Heighter was determined to go places -- so much so that his mother worried about his impatient drive, of his strong desire for wealth and success. "Life just doesn't happen like that; success is a process," she'd told him over and over.
But since joining the military two years ago, he seemed to mature rapidly. For the first time, the young man who had only been as far away as Florida's Disney World left home for a one-year tour at a U.S. military base in South Korea. Shortly after coming home, he was called for duty in Iraq in February.
For the first time, Cathy Heighter said, her son saw that he was already wealthy, compared with the devastation in other parts of the world. He was prepared to work hard, taking it one step at a time.
Just this week, she received a letter from her son. In it, he "wrote like he'd never written before," Cathy Heighter said.
"Today is a blissful day ... Today is the first time I realized you (only) have tried your hardest to bring the bestowed, hidden, optimistic and spontaneous qualities out of me ... as I sit here in tears, I thank you," Raheen Heighter wrote.
Friday, at the Bay Shore home of Raheen's only brother, his family struggled to understand the loss of the young man who seemed so close to coming home, so close to achieving his personal goals.
"He always talked about coming home," said Cathy Heighter, who had sent her son packages of Skittles and Starburst and prepared for his return by sprucing up her Bay Shore apartment and buying him light summer shorts. "He said, 'I got to come home to take care of you'."
Teary-eyed and often searching for words, family members recalled Raheen, sometimes in the present tense, between visits and phone calls from family members and friends. They remembered the creative artist, the football player, a former member of the high school choir who enjoyed staying home reading motivational books and working on the computer.
"His brain was always working," said his brother Glynn Heighter, 28, as he sat in a cozy basement decorated with family pictures. When his brother was 9, Glynn Heighter said, he tried to build a microwave out of paper plates, starting a minor fire. He was quick, conquering video games before anyone else.
"He'd play it, he'd beat it, and he was in the neighborhood reselling it," Glynn Heighter said.
As he grew older, Raheen Heighter began drawing intricate pencil sketches. One, of a crying father and son, was so moving that Cathy Heighter framed it and sent it to art magazines to be published.
"I was expecting him to come home in June," she said. "When he didn't come home in June, I said July. But as each day went by, I would hear, 'Another soldier down ... another soldier down ... another soldier down. I had doubts about his coming home."
When uniformed military officials showed up shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday at her hair salon, Beyond Images of Beauty in Bay Shore, Cathy Heighter said she knew immediately what had happened.
Asked if the family supported the war, Cathy Heighter said: "My war is over. I followed my son's travels from Day One ... I don't have to worry about him hiding around a rock. The war for me is over."
Staff writer Keiko Morris contributed to this story.