"Pops, when I come home, Natty Bohs and crabs?" Lance Cpl. Eugene C. "Gene" Mills III asked his father, Gene Mills II, during an impromptu phone call early last week, about a month before the younger man was due to return home to Laurel from Afghanistan.
"One more mission, Pops, and I'll be home," the son told his father. "Love you, Pops."
Those were the last words his father — a retired Prince George's County police officer known as "Big Gene" — would ever hear from "Little Gene," 21, a High Road Academy graduate and Marine stationed in Helmand province, on his second deployment to the country.
On Monday, Corporal Mills' remains were returned to the United States at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where family and friends — including his father; mother, Theresa Mills; stepmother, Melissa Mills; and brother, Jacob "Jake" Mills, a rising senior at Atholton High School — were waiting on the tarmac.
On Friday, Corporal Mills, a member of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was leading his five-man infantry team on a patrol in the province's Sangin Valley when they became involved in a firefight. Corporal Mills was shot in the upper left chest, his father said. He was treated by another Marine on the ground, then transported to a medical facility in Afghanistan, where he died, his father said.
Two Marines and Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin brought the family the news.
"There's nothing worse," Gene Mills said, choking back tears. "You know it's not good. I prayed that it was just he was injured, I prayed that he lost a leg, I prayed that he lost two legs but was OK."
The news of Corporal Mills' death quickly swept through Laurel, where the Mills family has deep roots.
Mayor Craig Moe announced flags in the city will be flown at half-staff in honor of Corporal Mills until his funeral services, which have not been set.
"Everybody's coming together," Jim Collins, president of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, said of the city's support for the family.
Corporal Mills had first announced his desire to join the military on Sept. 11, 2001, his father said, after watching live news coverage of the terrorist attacks on a 13-inch television in his room, unknown to his father.
He had come out of his room, a concerned look on his face, and asked his father what was happening.
"So I sat down with him and discussed everything, and I said, 'Everything's going to be all right. We're the United States of America. We can survive this,'" his father remembered. "And he said, 'Dad, when I'm old enough, I'm going into the military, and I'm going to help protect us.' "
Corporal Mills never lost sight of that goal and joined the Marines shortly after graduating from high school, onFather's Day2008, his father said.
He was first deployed in 2010 to Now Zad, Afghanistan. He left home for his second deployment in the country in March. His family would send him care packages, and he would give most of what was in them to Afghan children, his father said.
"Gene was just the all-around great kid," his father said. "He wanted to make a difference."
Corporal Mills' superior officers have recommended he receive the Purple Heart.
Though funeral arrangements have not been completed, Mills will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery after a service at Grace Community Church in Fulton, his father said.