Army Staff Sgt. David Kuehl met a young girl named Messa on his first military assignment in Iraq. He liked the name so much that he and his wife passed it on to their second daughter.
"He just liked her name. She was a cute little girl. I never did get a picture of her or anything, but ever since that day, we kept that name," Amy Kuehl said Thursday. "We never told anybody."
It is one of many stories she wishes her husband could tell his daughters, 9-month-old Messa and 7-year-old Kiley. David Kuehl, 27, of Wahpeton, was killed earlier this week during combat operations in Iraq.
The Defense Department confirmed Kuehl's death Thursday, saying he died Tuesday in Taji, Iraq, after a roadside bomb detonated near his unit.
He was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, known as the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, based in Fort Lewis, Wash., the military said.
"Kiley could describe him pretty good. Messa's never going to get that chance to know him," an emotional Amy Kuehl told reporters outside a friend's house. "He was a great father."
Kuehl was only three weeks into his second tour of duty in Iraq, which was scheduled to last 15 months. He left Fort Lewis on Good Friday.
Principal Clark Grippentrog knew Kuehl at Wahpeton High School and says as a student, Kuehl struggled with a learning disability. But he worked very hard and by his senior year he'd raised his grades to a B average.
"He really enjoyed his art classes. He really excelled in those areas," Grippentrog says. "He liked to draw and paint, he took every art class that we offered at the time, and he did an exceptionally good job. His art teacher said he had a lot of potential."
Grippentrog says Kuehl was convinced the Army was a good career option for him.
"He and I had talked about it. He thought it would be a good choice for him and at the time he talked about making it a career," Grippentrog says.
On Thursday, Amy Kuehl wore a T-shirt depicting the name of her husband's unit, turning down offers for a coat or sweatshirt despite chilly temperatures in the 40s.
"I bought it before I left Fort Lewis ... because I can never remember what unit he's in," she said of the T-shirt.
Amy said David rarely talked about life in the military. He talked about the sites of Germany while he was stationed there, but said little about combat operations.
"He kept a lot of stuff to himself," Amy said. "Staff sergeant ... you've got a lot of responsibility."
Amy grew up in Breckenridge, Minn., which borders Wahpeton. She and David were good friends in high school, but didn't get serious until after he joined the Army following graduation.
"Lots of times, in the middle of the night, he was the first person I called when I had any trouble," Amy said. "He constantly kept asking me out and I kept saying no because I wanted to stay good friends. I didn't want to ruin the friendship. But we got together, anyway."
Wendy Kuehl, David's sister, described her brother as a "very loving" person who took pride in his family and his military service. She said the two of them "fought like siblings, but he was a good brother in the end."
He also loved his pickup truck.
"He was so proud of his truck," Amy said. "Everyday he called me from Iraq, that was the first question he asked, how his truck was. And his kids."
Military officials notified the family about David's death on Tuesday night.
"It's like with everything. You always think it's never going to happen to my family, it's never going to be my brother," Wendy said. "You always try to put it out of your mind. Make it feel like he's always going to be safe in your heart."
Wahpeton and Breckenridge residents were placing yellow ribbons on trees to honor Kuehl. Mayors of both towns have ordered that flags be flown at half-staff. Funeral services are pending.
Amy Kuehl said the family received so much food they started to freeze some of it.
"That's what's nice about a small town," she said. "You can count on them."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)