By all accounts, Atco native David M. Tapper's SEAL team was an elite unit, even for the rarified world of military special operations.
Often called upon to conduct the most harrowing missions, Tapper took part in the April rescue of wounded POW Jessica Lynch, then helped recover the bodies of nine American soldiers buried near the Iraqi hospital where she was held, according to friends and the Tapper family.
After serving in Iraq for two months, Tapper, a father of four, returned to Camden County for a visit during a six-week leave in early summer. Tapper, who had spent most of his 13-year naval career as a SEAL, was reluctant to return to the war zone.
"He said it was too soon," said a sister, who spoke for the family. "He wanted to stay with his children and spend more time with his family in Atco."
But, duty called again last month, this time sending him to Afghanistan, where an increasingly overlooked and vastly dangerous mission to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists grinds on.
Tapper, 32, died there Wednesday while conducting combat operations in a lawless province near the Pakistani border - an area where the military believes the terrorists are operating.
Friends here said Tapper was shot in the back during an ambush. He died later at a hospital at Bagram Air Base, the Navy said.
"David fought a good fight and accomplished his mission in life," said the sister, who asked not to be identified by name. "We know that he is in Heaven and it was the Lord's will to take him there."
A Navy spokesman declined to discuss Tapper's unit or its mission in Afghanistan.
Tapper's wife and four children live in Virginia Beach, Va., where his unit was stationed, but he has a large family in the Atco area, where he grew up and graduated from Edgewood High School in 1989.
The youngest of six children - and the only boy - Tapper was extremely close with his mother, Judi, an agent for Weichert Realtors, friends said. One sister died when she was young, they said. Judi Tapper was proud of her son's service, yet devastated by the loss of the family protector.
"We grew up with him protecting his mother and sisters," one sister said. "Then he grew up to protect his country."
Tapper's family, both here and in Virginia, have shunned most requests for interviews. Some friends said the Navy has cautioned them against speaking out because of the sensitive nature of Tapper's missions.
Services will be held for him in Atco and at Arlington National Cemetery, said the Rev. Joe Beggs, pastor of Atco United Presbyterian Church. Beggs said details had not been finalized. Tapper grew up attending the Atco church, where Beggs has been pastor for 17 years. Tapper's sister said he wrote the congregants, thanking them for their prayers while he was fighting in Iraq.
"He said he and everyone in his team could feel the prayers protecting them," Beggs said. "He's been an amazing hero for us."
Beggs said Tapper closely guarded the secrets of his missions.
"He said, 'Joe, don't ask me what I'm doing. Even if I was allowed tell you, you wouldn't want to know.' "
He said Tapper was a "lively kid" who came from a religious family. Tapper's sister said, "God's hand kept him safe when he was in Iraq."
Beggs said Tapper also had fought in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Waterford Township, which includes Atco, was already awash in patriotism, with military families displaying banners furnished by the local American Legion post in their windows. The flag at the municipal building was lowered to half staff yesterday at the municipal building.
At the Atco Diner, a hub of community activity, Tapper's death dominated the conversations of a saddened lunch crowd yesterday. Owner Laurie Toussaint, who is also Waterford's mayor, talked about the death while holding a phone in one hand and serving a plate of scrapple and eggs with the other.
"It's hard to watch a family you've known for 30 years so devastated," she said.
Tapper was the fourth Navy SEAL from the Virginia Beach area to die in Afghanistan. Many of the 1,200 SEALs based in Virginia are stationed at the Little Creek Amphibious Base.
Lt. John Perkins, a SEALs spokesman, and a military expert both said the missions in Afghanistan can be extremely dangerous.
As opposed to some special forces that also collect intelligence, SEALs are designated almost primarily for combat, said Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Tapper was listed as a photographer's mate first class petty officer, but Cordesman said "titles are meaningless" in the SEAL teams.
Tapper enlisted in the Navy after high school, in November 1989, with the intention of making the highly competitive SEAL teams, friends said. He graduated from SEAL training in San Diego in 1991.
He met his wife, Tracy, in California, said Tapper's sister. The couple had two boys and two girls, ages 3, 5, 8 and 11.
While overseas on missions, his family had no way to contact him, either through mail or by phone. But Tapper had called his wife and children on Sunday and Monday. One of his sisters was visiting then and spoke to him - for the last time.
Tapper turned 32 on Aug. 16, four days before the death that has left his family reeling.
"We got to spend quality time with him when he was home. He came down one weekend and then he surprised us and came down a second weekend," the sister said. "He was a loving and dedicated father. He lived for his children and his wife."