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Army Spc. Preston J. Dennis, 23, Redding; killed in explosion in Afghanistan

Heather Dennis first saw him rolling up to the Dutch Bros. Coffee house, his music shrieking out the car window.

Dutch Bros. was where everybody young in Redding, at the northern tip of California’s Central Valley, hung out. Heather, just 18, was sitting in her truck with her friends listening to her own music.

“I yelled at him, ‘If I wanted to hear your music, I’d just come over and sit in your car,’ ” she said.

After that encounter in July 2008, they were together every evening until Preston J. Dennis joined the Army and started basic training later that year. While he was away, Heather wrote to him every day — a real letter, not an email. He wrote back every other day.

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Later, they were walking midway across the Sundial Bridge over the Sacramento River, in the center of Redding when Dennis dropped to his knees and proposed. The couple had seven months of married life together before he was ordered to Afghanistan the first time in June 2009.

He made it through a tough tour in the mountainous and volatile Wetapur Valley of Kunar province, and then was assigned to a new unit — the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Drum, N.Y. When the new outfit was sent to Afghanistan, Dennis forfeited three months at home so he could stick with his soldiers.

“He was a squad leader, and he didn’t want his guys to go without him,” his wife said.

On April 28, Dennis was killed by an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, on the Pakistani border. He was 23.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but he was doing what he loved,” his wife said.

Dennis had graduated in 2006 from Modoc High School in Alturas, Calif., where he played baseball and soccer.

Music was another interest, everything from country star Jason Aldean to heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch. “Anything I can shake my head to,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Dennis decided to attend the College of the Siskiyous, at the base of Mt. Shasta, both for its criminal justice program and nearby ski park. He looked up to his stepfather, Brian Mix, the former elected sheriff of Modoc County, and wanted to follow him into law enforcement, Heather Dennis said. He raced with the college snowboard team.

Dennis was elected student body president of the college.

“He had this charisma, the way he carried himself, this confidence,” his wife said. Dennis started a bowling night and brought in a Slip ‘n Slide for a campus barbecue.

Dennis was one class away from an associate’s degree. But, too young to attend the California Highway Patrol academy, and with the economy such as it is and was, he decided to join the Army as an infantryman, his wife said.

The infantry, he wrote on his Facebook Favorite Quotations entry, was the only military “arm where the weapon is the man himself.”

During his first tour, Dennis was a rifleman on daily patrol in one of the most dangerous places in the world, said 1st Lt. Florent Groberg, an Army platoon leader who served alongside him.

“It was a pretty hot area,” Groberg recalled. The insurgents “would hide in the mountains and engage us from far distances.” Dennis was in nearly 50 combat engagements, Groberg said.

“He always had a cool demeanor,” Groberg said. “He was one of all the guys’ favorites: honest and loyal.”

Their base housed 90 U.S. soldiers and 130 members of the Afghan National Army. Dennis volunteered to help Capt. Evan Johnson, now of the Marine Corps Reserve, train Afghan fighters to switch from Russian-made to NATO weapons.

“He was one of the more happy-go-lucky guys,” Johnson recalled. “He always seemed to have a smile on his face and, believe me, over there it makes a huge difference.”

Heather Dennis said her husband was happy because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do.

“People work their whole lives trying to find a job they love that much, and Preston found it at a young age,” she said.

During their phone calls, he didn’t talk much about work. Instead, they discussed goings-on at home with the family, his mother and stepfather, Maria and Brian Mix; father, Richard Dennis; and sisters. Amanda and Angie Dennis, all of Redding. Amanda’s young sons, William, 5, and Wyatt, 1, also “meant a lot to him,” Heather Dennis said.

The dogs — the Welsh corgi Roxie and German shepherd Rosko — also were a reliable topic. Dennis wanted a Husky. After he died, his wife fulfilled his wish. The new dog’s name is Chinook.

Dennis was buried May 12 with full military honors at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in the community of Igo, near Redding.

gale.holland@latimes.com


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