When he saw the faces of the four Marines on the doorstep of his Gary, Ind., home, Matthew Winters Sr. braced for the worst. "I thought it was about my son," says Winters, 55, referring to Matthew Jr., a sergeant who was stationed in Yuma, Ariz., and could have been deployed to Afghanistan. But the honor guard's grim news concerned another of his children. Sgt. Jeannette L. Winters, 25, a radio operator who was usually far from combat, was one of seven Marines who perished Jan. 9 when their plane crashed in southwestern Pakistan—and the first U.S. servicewoman to die in the war on terrorism. "She was my daughter," says the elder Winters, blinking back tears. "It hurt so bad."

It remains unclear just why the four-engine KC-130, a plane used to refuel others while in flight, struck a mountainside and exploded as it approached an airfield in the town of Shamsi. But to those who knew Winters, there's little doubt that she died a hero. "She was one in a million," says 1st Lt. Jeni Froehlich, 31, Winters's platoon leader at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. "I'm damn proud of her."

Born in Chicago but raised in Gary, Winters was one of six children and the older of two girls. Her father, a former truck driver and security guard, is now disabled by three strokes; mother Janet, a nurse's aide, died of ovarian cancer in 1994 at age 49. Throughout her short life, Winters was known for her determination. "She was an average athlete, but she was dedicated," says Maryanne Nicks, 44, a onetime assistant track coach at Calumet High School, where Winters ran the mile and cross-country. "The kind of kid a coach wants on the team." A quiet achiever who played piano, sang in the chorus and garnered solid grades, Winters seldom backed down from a challenge. "She was tough as a nail," says family friend David Walton, 37, another track coach and a county sheriff's department chaplain. "She would do things 100 percent from the heart."

Never was that more evident than after her mother's death. "It hit her the hardest," says Matthew Jr., 29. "Once Mom died, Jeannette took over her role." Besides cooking, cleaning, parenting her siblings and organizing the household, Winters helped keep the family spiritually afloat with her cheerful, can-do demeanor. Turning down her father's offer of an allowance, she supported herself by working as a cashier at a Kmart. Despite the loss of her mother, "she was always smiling and happy," says former coworker Harriet Clay, 37, who became Winters's stepsister last June when her mother, Helen, 63, a computer instructor, married Matthew Sr.

After graduating from Calumet in 1995, Winters enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, majoring in public affairs and developing an interest in medicine. "She was going to be a doctor," says her father, "but she changed her mind." Instead she left college in December 1996, and in 1997 followed her brother into the Marine Corps. "She had seen me in uniform," says Matthew Jr., who signed up in 1992, "and had seen the prestige that comes with that."

Winters flourished in the corps, training as a radio operator before being assigned to a unit in Cherry Point, N.C. Last winter she re-upped for a second tour of duty and in June transferred to the Marine Wings Air Squadron at Miramar. There she impressed superiors with her me-last attitude. "She always wanted to take care of other people," says Capt. Steven Pacheco, 30, her company commander. When two younger radio men were shipped to Afghanistan last fall, "she worked nonstop for a day and a half to train them," says Lieutenant Froehlich. "I don't think she slept."

Winters, who had remained unattached since breaking up with a boyfriend two years ago, chose to spend last Thanksgiving near the base to support a friend going through a personal rough patch. But when she was chosen on Dec. 1 as one of two female soldiers from her platoon to go to war, she was elated. "There's nobody else I would have sent," says Froehlich. In their final conversation, Pacheco asked her jokingly whether she was sure of her qualifications. "Are you kidding, sir?" Winters responded. "I'm the best one to go out there."

Before going overseas, Winters assembled a package of Christmas gifts for her family, among them a coat, gloves and hat for a 2-year-old niece she had never met and a guitar for her father, once a professional musician. "The guitar means a lot to me," says Matthew Sr. He will never play duets with his daughter, but he finds some comfort in the knowledge that "she loved what she was doing. She served her country."

Nick Charles
Grant Pick in Gary

  • Contributors:
  • Grant Pick.