Waterford - Shortly before leaving for Afghanistan last year, Army Spec. Edgar Gallegos was planning a small barbecue at Fort Drum to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
But Staff Sgt. Ari R. Cullers had other plans, Gallegos recalled.
"He said, 'No. No. We are definitely having a party,'" said Gallegos, 22. "Half the platoon was there. He was always getting everyone together. He was just a happy, outgoing guy."
Cullers died Oct. 30 in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, when enemy forces attacked his unit with a rocket-propelled grenade. He was a mechanic assigned to the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum, N.Y.
Friday would have been his 29th birthday.
A party in his honor was held Saturday. The Waterford Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6573 was packed with friends, relatives, soldiers from Fort Drum and some who didn't know Cullers but wanted to show their support.
Because many of the soldiers have just returned from Afghanistan, this was their first chance to see Cullers' family.
Spec. Todd Lomax was injured in the same blast that killed Cullers. They were fixing a bulldozer together. Lomax lost hearing in both ears, hurt his left leg and bears many scars from shrapnel. He was released from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Wednesday.
Cullers would have wanted a big party to bring everyone together, said Lomax, 23, who since the explosion regained partial hearing after surgery.
"He was truly all about family," Lomax said.
Cullers' mother, Robin Cornele, said the past month has been "really rough."
"They all started coming back, and I kept thinking that Ari would've been coming back," she said.
Cornele wore a pin with Cullers' picture and a gold star, which shows that her son died in combat while serving in the military. She said she planned the party to help her move forward.
"This has helped me to do that," she said. "It kept me busy. But it is hard to see his picture and wear my gold star."
"Anyone who met him loved him," said Tanya Wheeler, who dated Cullers. "He was not a perfect angel, but none of us are. He was perfect to me."
Proceeds from the ticket sales and raffles were donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to severely injured service members.
Members of the New London VFW gave Cornele a memorial commendation and the New London Elks Lodge presented a check for the nonprofit organization.
The New London Motorcycle Club made Cullers an honorary member. Cullers had bought a Honda Fury and intended to join the club when he returned home.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who stopped by the party, said meeting Cornele and the soldiers who served with Cullers' was "one of the most moving and inspiring things" he has done recently.
Cullers was born in New London and moved to Waterford, graduating high school in 2001 and joining the Army in 2004. He thrived, earning many awards and decorations. He went to Fort Drum in 2008 and spent a year in Afghanistan. He deployed again with his unit in March 2011.
"I think about him every day," said Staff Sgt. Joey Pryor, 28, Cullers' best friend from Fort Drum. "It's part of the healing process to be here."
Cullers' younger brother, Jacob, thanked everyone for attending.
"If this had happened to somebody else, Ari would be right here doing the same thing," he said.
He said he was particularly grateful to the 15 soldiers who traveled from Fort Drum.
"You are the closest thing I have to my brother," he said. "I love you guys."