SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. --- The family of a U.S. Navy SEAL serving in Afghanistan confirmed the death of their son and brother on Saturday in a helicopter crash in Wardak province.
The city is located just across the river from Sioux City, Iowa.
Sengchanh Douangdara, the mother of U.S. Navy SEAL John Douangdara, said military officials approached her home at 10 a.m. Saturday to deliver the news of her son's death. Master at Arms, Class 1 John Douangdara, 26, was a dog handler for the elite military unit.
The 2003 South Sioux City High School graduate was aboard a Chinook helicopter with 37 others when the aircraft was shot down during an anti-Taliban operation in the Tangi Valley.
Thirty U.S. troops were killed, including nearly two dozen members of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Seven Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter also were killed in the deadliest incident for U.S. forces since the start of the decadelong war.
"I didn't even know Johnny was a Navy SEAL," his mother said. "I know that he loved his job, it was a job he chose."
The family's sadness was tempered with pride that their brother and son had served his country, a country that welcomed these Laotian immigrants 31 years ago.
"We are proud Johnny fought for the country that embraced our family and gave us the opportunity to reach for the American dream," said Chan Follen, the oldest of five children in the family.
Sengchanh and Phouthasith Douangdara fled Communist forces in their native Laos in 1979. After the birth of their first child, daughter Chan, they immigrated to the U.S., part of a large contingent of refugees at the time who escaped Laos.
Johnny was born four years later, the third of five children the couple would raise in South Sioux City.
"He was the middle child, very quiet," sister Chan said. "He loved school activities."
Johnny was small in stature, growing to only 5 feet, 7 inches. He participated in wrestling in junior high, but not in high school. Mock trial became his favorite activity at South Sioux City High School.
"I hate to say this, but he was a geek," older brother Pan Douangdara said. "He loved computers."
He grew to love the military as well, building upon a relationship with a recruiter who began communicating with him in high school. Johnny earned the credits needed to graduate during the fall semester of his senior year at South Sioux City High. He graduated and headed to Basic Training.
"Us older siblings offered to help him pay for college, but he said the military is what he wanted to do," Chan Follen said.
Even on the drive to Basic Training, Johnny told his older brother that someday he'd be working on a nuclear submarine.
Evidently, his passion for dogs interrupted that career track. When John Douangdara died on Saturday, he reportedly was handling a dog he had trained for work with the Navy SEALs in Afghanistan.
His family didn't know the specifics of his work or that he was a member of the elite SEALs. When he spoke, he didn't share information about his work or the missions he completed in five overseas tours.
He was last at home in June to attend the wedding of sister Chan, who exchanged vows at Bev's on the River, the last wedding before floodwaters struck Sioux City. He spent the week eating barbecue, swimming and partying with family members.
"It was a celebration, both for my wedding and for Johnny being back home," Chan said.
The last time he'd had such an extended stay with family occurred in 2009, when the family traveled back to Laos. Johnny paid for his trip and his mother's. The trip gave him a chance to spend time with his grandfather, Bo Khomvouttavong, who served as a captain in the Royal Laos Army more than three decades ago.
Upon learning of his death, the family erected a memorial in their living room on East 15th Street in South Sioux City. The modest split level home now features a candle that has burned since Saturday morning. The candle is surrounded by fresh flowers, fresh fruit, pictures of Johnny and food that is changed three times per day. The memorial follows Buddhist religious traditions involving the recently deceased.
The candle will remain lit until John Douangdara's remains are laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Chan Follen said the funeral will take place sometime within the next two weeks.
A U.S. flag moved in the breeze Monday as family members shared their memories. None shed a tear during an hourlong interview.
"I don't think my brother would call himself a hero," Chan Follen said. "He was doing his job, doing what he believed in. But in our hearts, he'll always be our hero."