WEST JORDAN — He was a young man who loved both his family and his country.
Family members of 19-year-old Pfc. Aaron Thomas Nemelka said he planned to officially ask his girlfriend to marry him when he returned home in December for a short visit before being deployed in January to the Middle East.
But his dreams of being a husband, father and career soldier were taken away Thursday during the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.
Family members say Nemelka was one of the first people shot by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who officials believe killed 12 soldiers and one civilian and injured dozens more.
"He died instantly," said Nemelka's grandfather, Michael Nemelka. "Kind of a blessing: He didn't suffer."
Nemelka was one of two Utahns directly affected by the tragedy. Pfc. Joey Foster took a bullet in the hip during the shooting.
Nemelka's family received a call about 11:30 p.m. Thursday from an Army representative with the tragic news.
"I miss everything about him. He was fun to be around … just a lovable kid. He didn't have a problem with anybody," Michael Nemelka said.
Aaron Nemelka was a combat engineer with the 510th Engineering Company, 20th Infantry Battalion, 36th Engineering Brigade. He was scheduled to be deployed to do one of the most dangerous jobs in the war — helping to dispose of munitions, according to his grandfather.
"He wanted to serve his country. He picked what he wanted to do. He wanted to do one of those dangerous jobs," he said.
Outside the home of Nemelka's parents Friday, about 2 dozen American flags covered the entire front yard and walkway. The driveway was full of vehicles from visiting family members and representatives from the U.S. Army. Family members used words such as "completely devastated" and "shocked" to describe the mood of people in the house.
"I had to ask my wife twice, 'Is he going to be OK?' " Michael Nemelka said, before the reality of what had happened hit him.
Michael and Teena Nemelka, Aaron's parents, released a prepared statement through the U.S. Army. In it, they said they were "so proud to have (Aaron) serve our country in the military," while calling him "the most kind and loving son, brother, nephew, cousin and favorite uncle."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement Friday expressing condolences to the Nemelka family and praising the combat engineer for putting "his life on the line to protect the values we hold dear."
"Utah joins the entire nation in grieving today for the servicemen and -women killed and injured during (Thursday's) tragedy at Fort Hood in Texas," Herbert said.
In honor of Pfc. Nemelka and the 11 others who lost their lives at Fort Hood, and in accordance with a White House proclamation, Herbert has authorized all state agencies to lower the U.S. and Utah flags until sunset Tuesday.
"We ought never forget about those who risk their lives every day, at home and abroad, to protect our freedoms," the governor said.
Aaron Nemelka was the youngest of four children. His aunt, Alesa Forrest, said both his mother and father came from big families. Aaron was one of 42 grandchildren.
"His family was everything to him," Forrest said. "He was one of the favorite cousins, always willing to play with the kids. We're devastated. It's just devastation. What else can you say?"
Forrest said Aaron Nemelka's main hobby was his family, because when they all got together, by the time he was done visiting with each person or playing cards or games, an entire day would have gone by.
A 2008 graduate of West Jordan High School, he was an Eagle Scout and loved skateboarding, family members said.
"He was a sweet, nice kid; quiet, well-spoken. He loved life and his family," Forrest said.
"He was really excited to serve his country," added his grandfather, a former Marine. "He was a great kid. He did all the right things. … Just a great grandson."
As for what happened, family members who spoke to the Deseret News were mixed on their reactions.
Forrest said she and some other family members had moved from the grief stage and into the anger stage.
"The 'whys' come out. … Why'd it have to happen?" she asked.
Aaron's grandfather, however, said he held no animosity toward Hasan.
"That's between him and his God," he said.
Hasan allegedly began firing multiple shots into the Fort Hood processing center shortly after 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The shooting is believed to be the worst on an American military base. Twenty-seven soldiers, including Hasan, remained hospitalized Friday, the Army said.
In an early morning press conference, Lt. Gen. Bob Cone, III Corps and Fort Hood commander, confirmed that Hasan was injured but still alive and in stable condition. He is in custody.
Cone said civilian police officer Sgt. Kimberly Munley shot Hasan. She was wounded but is in stable condition at an area hospital.
The shootings took place near a theater where 138 college graduates were receiving their diplomas. The soldiers in the theater were able to gain control of the scene, the Army said, and no one in the theater was hurt.