Long before Jonathan Dunbar was a father and a soldier, he was a little brother.
"He was the biggest nerd ever," Crystal Dunbar said. "He had big, Coke-bottle glasses, and he was always playing the superhero. So, whether he was playing cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, or anything like that, he was always the superhero."
The Army master sergeant died in Syria on March 30. He is the first Austinite to die from combat-related injuries since 2012.
Dunbar was born in Minnesota, but his family relocated to far North Austin – near Brian Powell's family. Powell says the Dunbar kids became fast friends with the other neighborhood kids – and, apparently, they were a loud bunch.
"We were so rowdy around the neighborhood that I think some of the [home owners association] people were actually trying to ban kids being able to go to the pool and stuff like that," Powell said.
(For the record, they were never banned.)
Jonathan Dunbar later attended Connally High School, graduating in 1999.
"I was actually fiercely protective of him growing up," Crystal Dunbar said. "Even when he was a teenager and he was the rough-and-tough teenager, I was always still fiercely protective of him."
That protective instinct kicked in even when he enlisted in the Army in 2005.
"He actually went into the military for his son," she said. "He was a young father and he decided he needed to better his life for his son. And seeing the change in him from that point to going into the military. We weren't for him going into the military just based on our own fear and our own selfishness. But it changed him. It changed him into an amazing father."
Dunbar thrived with the Airborne infantry. He was promoted to squad leader and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"The first time you see him, I was like, 'Jesus, that guy is huge,'" said Rafael "Rafa" Centeno.
It was at Fort Bragg that then-Sgt. Dunbar met Spc. Rafael Centeno. The two helped lead a quick reaction force unit.
"I couldn't have asked for a better squad leader," Centeno said. "And I feel that I had his full confidence in running his team ... We got to bond real close because we were in such close proximity to one another under different stressful situations."
By 2013, Dunbar had joined special operations at Fort Bragg. The missions got a lot more complicated and dangerous.
"I knew given the nature of the work he was doing, he was always in a dangerous situation, and it was always unpredictable when he could leave and when he could come back," Centeno said. "But I remember asking him, 'Hey man, how's it going? How are you liking it?' And he said that it was dangerous work ... and that coming from Jon meant a lot."
Powell, who was also an Army veteran, said the way Dunbar described the work, it seemed like a movie.
"I can't really get into details on what he has told me," he said, "but I can tell you there are probably people that are alive today that probably wouldn't have been able to go home and see their children, if it wasn't for him."
"The missions that he went on were extremely secretive," Crystal Dunbar said. "Even his wife never knew where he was and he couldn't talk about them. He did tell us that – especially my dad – he talked about, you know, that he was going on some pretty dangerous things. And he actually talked about what he wanted us to do if he didn't come home. And he just wanted us to be strong and to be there and love each other as a family."
The 36-year-old was on a classified mission in Manbij, Syria, when a roadside bomb exploded, according to the Department of Defense. Dunbar died from his injuries, along with a British soldier.
"This man was a father, a friend, a brother, a child," Powell said. "He was an amazing individual, and, you know, he did sacrifice for us."
"Jon was the best," Centeno said. "He was quiet and reserved. He knew when to talk to you and how to talk to you. And I loved him like only a little brother could love a big brother. And at times, I found him annoying, just like a little brother always finds a big brother annoying, how he's always perfect in everything he does. So, we used to butt heads a lot. But at the end of the day, we used to always have a beer together and, you know, have that bond. Jon was the greatest."
Dunbar leaves behind his pregnant wife and three kids. A funeral service will be held in North Carolina, where he lived, on Saturday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 20.