Published: Nov 19, 2011 4:51 AM EST

FORT MYERS, Fla. - A soldier with Fort Myers connections was killed Wednesday in Afghanistan. His family says, the country lost a true American hero.

"He was always smiling, always, always smiling," Robyn Metcalf of Fort Myers said.
     
She said serving his country was something that came naturally for her nephew, Army Specialist James Burnett, Jr.

"He collected gum from relatives who sent it to him, so he could give the gum away to the kids in the streets at the villages he went to," Metcalf said.
     
Metcalf said they'd just received word this week he'd be coming home from Afghanistan in February. Within hours, celebration turned to tears.

"He was in a Jeep with several other soldiers, and it was struck by an IED," Metcalf said.
     
He later died, just two weeks after turning 21. Although he grew up in the mid-west, SPC Burnett has loved ones in Fort Myers He often visited family and even lived here for a year. He loved dogs and aspired to be a deputy.

Burnett's father, who lives in Missouri said, while escalating fighting scared his son at times, he was proud to wear the uniform.

"I was proud of him because he was over there doing things I couldn't even think about," James Burnett, Sr. said. "I always told him to keep his head down and watch his tail."

"Losing someone in this manner, it's very senseless, but at the same time, he was doing what his country asked him, and I'm very proud of him," Metcalf said. "He's a hero to all of us."

SPC Burnett leaves behind a fiance and three dogs. The family is making funeral arrangements in Missouri.