Some 25 years ago, a fifth-grade teacher in Massachusetts asked student Joe Kennedy to greet a new transfer student from San Jose. The California kid, Kevin Houston, walked up to Kennedy and said: "Hi, I'm Kevin. I'm going to be a Navy SEAL."
Houston was born to be a member of the military's most elite squad, overcoming a series of hurdles that would have made a lesser man falter, his friends and family recalled Monday. On Saturday morning, the San Jose native was one of 30 American troops who died after a U.S. helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, the single largest loss of American life in the 10-year-old war.
Now those close to Houston -- including several family members who still live in the South Bay -- are mourning the loss of the 36-year-old charismatic member of SEAL Team 6, the famed unit that killed Osama bin Laden (Houston was not on that mission).
Houston's friends and family thought he was as close to invincible as people come. He broke his back in a motorcycle accident as a senior in high school and though he attended his graduation in a wheelchair, he walked across the stage to accept his diploma. He was the captain of the football team. His parents divorced at an early age and he lost his only sibling to cancer. He survived a brutal SEAL orientation that makes most hopefuls quit within days. He juggled one of the world's most intense jobs while maintaining a marriage and raising three kids on the East Coast.
"His mom would take him to the beach (as a kid) and he'd practice being a SEAL," said his aunt, Catherine Mann of San Jose. "He was coming out of the water with a knife in his mouth, and his mom would say, 'What are you doing?' And he'd say, 'I'm in training, mom.' I guess that was just in his makeup. He was a daredevil."
Around age 10, after his parents' divorce, the rambunctious youngster left the O.B. Whaley Elementary School in San Jose and moved with his mother and sister to the picturesque fishhook on the Atlantic Ocean called Cape Cod.
After high school in Massachusetts, where he excelled in football, basketball and lacrosse, the adventurous teenager joined the Navy and became a SEAL in 1999, eventually rising to the elite Team 6.
He met his wife, Meiling, while training in San Diego, and they settled in Chesapeake, Va., where they raised two boys and a girl, ages 3, 11 and 17. His mother, Jan Brown, remarried and had a boy with her new husband. She later moved to Virginia, as well.
Then about six yeas ago, tragedy struck. Houston's sister, Miranda, became gravely ill will cancer and was admitted into a hospice in Florida. She somehow survived and moved back to Boston for a year before she died.
"That was devastating to Kevin, obviously," said Kennedy, 35, who became best friends with Houston after that first day of school in the fifth grade. Kennedy had no idea what Houston meant when the transfer student said he was destined to be a SEAL. But by the end of the day, they were riding bikes together after school.
Like most Team 6 members, Houston rarely talked about his work; those close to him knew mostly that he went on a lot of presumably dangerous covert missions in the Middle East. But when he was off the job and back in the United States, he was hardly a military robot; rather, he was lighthearted and liked to joke around.
"It was almost like he had an understanding of things; Kevin made everybody around him feel better," Kennedy said. "He lifted everybody up and was just this positive force of nature. He made people feel safe and good and you just wanted to be around him; just a magnanimous personality, never arrogant, just confident."
Kennedy gave credit to Houston's wife and mother for helping Houston achieve his dreams.
His father, Arthur, of San Jose, has been in and out of the hospital with a medical condition and may not be able to make it to Virginia for his son's funeral. Mann said strangers who have heard about Houston's death have given her up to $100, unsolicited, to help her afford the trip to the service.
"He and all the other soldiers are heroes who were on that helicopter," Mann said. "They died for us and he'll always be our hero."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705.