(CNN) -- Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling suspected that his days were numbered last week, while he and his band of brothers in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team prepared for a mission near Wanat, Afghanistan.
Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling had a bad feeling about his final mission in Afghanistan, said his father, Kurt.
"It's gonna be a bloodbath," he told his father, Kurt Zwilling, on the phone in what would be their last conversation.
Kurt Zwilling braced himself for the worst but held out hope that his son would make it home.
"They were in the most dangerous place on Earth. They were in mortal danger, and there was nothing they could do about it," he said. "But they were soldiers, so they had to do their job."
With just a few days left in their 15-month tour, Gunnar Zwilling and eight of his comrades were killed July 13 in a clash with as many as 200 Taliban militants during a mission to set up an outpost near Wanat. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in three years.
In the wake of their deaths, the paratroopers have become symbols of what many say is a forgotten war, prompting the U.S. military to draw up plans for putting more troops and resources into the war in Afghanistan. Watch why troops may have to wait for help »
But before they were national heroes, the young soldiers were beloved sons, brothers, fathers and husbands who were drawn to the Army for different reasons. Families remember the fallen in photos »
Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee, joined the Army against his family's wishes with the intention of jump-starting his college education.
Before joining the service in 2006, Hovater was a "man of God" who divided his time between his father-in-law's landscaping company and playing songs of worship with his family.
"Everything that God deposited in that boy came out when he played the piano," said his mother, Kathy Hovater, who home-schooled her son and his three siblings.
Shortly after Hovater joined his combat team in Italy, his sister said, he called home and said he had made a mistake but was committed to following through with his service.
"He was a dedicated soldier. He did what he was supposed to do because he said if he weren't over there, all that horror and torment that was going on in the war, it would be over here," said his sister, Jessica Davis.
Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina, also joined the Army as a means to pay for his college education so he could become a teacher, according to Jeff Terrell, the leader of the youth group at the Glen Hope Baptist Church.
"He wasn't going to be a career military guy, but he believed in what he was doing," said Terrell, who knew Rainey since his teen years. "He felt like this would help him. He enjoyed it, but he had other plans.
"He really wanted to teach. He had a good way with kids. Kids flocked to him."
Before joining the Army, Rainey spent his time doing martial arts, a pastime that came naturally to the high school wrestling star, and volunteering for his church's youth ministry.
"The kids loved to jump on him like he was a big bear," Terrell said. "He was a big kid, but he was gentle."
Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia, seemed destined for military service since childhood.
"Jon was just very military since he was 3 years old. He looked at your shoes, and if they weren't perfect, they were no good," said his father, Bill Ayers. "He loved the regiment of the military; he loved order and schedule."
Despite his fastidious tendencies, Ayers' father remembers him as a "cutup" who never failed to amuse with his Jeff Foxworthy impersonation.
"He loved to see people smile and laugh," Ayers said. "He was not a prankster, but he loved to tell jokes."
For the free-spirited Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia, the armed forces satisfied a need for adventure while providing a service to his country.
"Matt had a very individualistic personality. He loved living life," said his father, Michael Phillips. "Even though he was afraid at times, in every photo from Afghanistan, he had a big smile on his face."
Phillips, who left a wife behind, died on the same day his sister gave birth to her first son, whom she named after him.
Like other grieving relatives, Phillips' father is attempting to reconcile his emotions with concerns over how the military handled the situation.
"We're torn between incredible pride and anger. We're having a difficult time reconciling that after 14 months, someone who served his country well and paid his dues, why would he be placed in such a perilous situation?" Phillips said.
"There have to be some answers for the family."
Dean Bogar, the grandfather of Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25, of Seattle, Washington, said he was troubled by the fact that his grandson was fighting in a Taliban stronghold with little reinforcements.
"That's a big question mark," he said. Watch how the Pentagon is investigating the attack »
Even so, he said, he is proud of his grandson for bringing "valor" to the Bogar name.
"He was a nifty boy. He had a great sense of humor and was outgoing and very bright and upfront with everything," he said. "Kind of clever little imp."
In the beginning, Kurt Zwilling said, his son enjoyed the camaraderie, discipline and excitement that Army life offered.
"Everything he did, he did with a passion," Kurt Zwilling said of his son, who graduated from high school in Florissant, Missouri. "That's why he wanted to join the paratroopers: He wanted to go into the toughest thing and be with the best."
Even as the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan became apparent, Zwilling said, his son applied the same determination to his service that had carried him through high school theater, sports and music.
"He walked into the valley of death and didn't flinch. He knew what was going to happen, and he went anyway. That's bravery," he said.
For the parents of 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Aiea, Hawaii, knowing that their son died doing what he felt was right brings some sense of closure.
"He was very happy doing what he was doing, and he wouldn't have had it any other way," said his mother, Mary Jo Brostrom. "That was what he wanted to do, defend our freedom and serve with his brothers."
Brostrom's parents said they are grateful they had the chance to spend time with their son in May, when he showed up unexpectedly at their door on Mother's Day with a bouquet of flowers.
He spent the next few weeks surfing, fishing and spending every waking moment with his parents and his 6-year-old son, Jase.
"When he came home, he would wrestle around and try and make us laugh," Mary Jo Brostrom said. "He had a beautiful smile and a beautiful heart, and that's what we'll miss."