LOWER TOWNSHIP - As a teenager, Michael Scusa used to jog down Kentucky Avenue in the Villas with a backpack filled with bricks to simulate Army training.
Family friends and teachers said Scusa, 22, always wanted to be in the military, and they remembered when the once-shy Scusa visited his Lower Township high school after basic training.
"He stood up straight, looked everyone in the eye. It was like he suddenly became a man, an adult," said his art teacher Susan Wolfe, her eyes watering.
Army Spc. Scusa, a 2005 graduate of Lower Cape May Regional High School, was one of eight soldiers killed Saturday when heavily armed insurgents stormed outposts in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.
Scusa's body arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Tuesday morning along with the bodies of five other soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
About 50 family members watched as the flag-draped transfer cases were removed from a military plane during what is called a "dignified transfer," which took about 10 minutes.
The quiet proceedings were punctuated only by the sound of a crying child.
The base has held 90 such transfers in the past 60 days.
Scusa grew up in Nebraska and lived in Cape May County for about six years - from 1999 to 2005 - when he joined the Army straight out of high school, said David Shuhart, who lived with Scusa and his mother in the Villas section of this Cape May County township.
Scusa lived in Fountain, Colo., near his base, Fort Carson. He and his wife Alyssa, named their infant son Connor Allen after another slain soldier, his mother Cindy Woodard said in a Feb. 26 online message board for Pfc. Allen B. Jaynes. Connor turned 1 year old Sept. 19, according to the posting. Michael would have turned 23 Monday.
Scusa left an impression on his Lower Cape May Regional High School teachers, who remembered him fondly as a sometimes-quiet student who blossomed over the years. He was enthusiastic about joining the military, they said. He enlisted while still in high school and shipped out shortly after graduation.
He visited his alma mater several times, but the first time he walked the halls in uniform and chatted with teachers was the most memorable.
He had changed, said his freshman English teacher Chris Rosenberg, who became friends with Scusa.
"He was a man," Rosenberg said.
"The last thing I said to him was be safe, keep your head down," said Rosenberg, who informed his class of Scusa's death on Tuesday morning.
"You hope to God they find a place in the world and you hope to God they stay safe," he said. "It sucks."
"He was one of those kids who was always in a good mood," said Carmen Alessi, his Spanish teacher. "It's a terrible shame. He was a nice, nice kid."
Shuhart said Scusa began to express an interest in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Scusa played military video games on the computer in his Villas home, and he researched the average weight of an Army backpack loaded with gear to train for the military, Shuhart said.
"He told his mom he wanted to go into the military. His mom was (opposed) at first, but he said that's what he really wanted," Shuhart said.
Before shipping out in 2005, Scusa sold a blue Camaro that he had tinkered with and finally got running.
"He didn't even have a driver's license, but he was determined to get it running," he said.
Scusa served his first tour in Iraq for about 16 months, when he drove an armed Humvee and later became a gunner, Shuhart said.
"I'm proud of him," he said.
Shuhart said Scusa did not talk to him much about his first tour in Iraq.
"He said he felt sorry for the civilians over there, what they were going through," he said.
Scusa re-enlisted and went to Afghanistan about a year ago, said Shuhart, who sent him care packages with candy, microwavable Campbell's soups, toiletries and the Little Debbie snack cakes he loved.
Shuhart said he was unsure if burial would take place in Colorado or Nebraska.
A woman who answered the phone at a Burlington County address listed for Scusa's mother, Cindy Woodard, did not want to speak Tuesday. Scusa's wife could not be reached Tuesday.
"Our hearts are with them," said Lower Township Mayor Michael Beck. "I'm a (Vietnam) veteran - this strikes home to all of us who have served."
"The relatives will be in our thoughts and prayers," he said. "It's a very sad day for Lower Township."
Staff writer Dan Good and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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