Christopher Sullivan's family and friends figured the soldier had already been through one of the most difficult challenges he could face when he survived a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan last year.
Now, the 22-year-old Army specialist is facing an even greater one. He lies in a Southern California hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down, after he was shot trying to break up a fight at his welcome home party last week.
Friends of the soldier say it was a miracle he survived the suicide bombing that killed six of his fellow soldiers. Sullivan, who tried to save his comrades, was left with broken bones and a brain injury that took months to heal.
This week, they are praying for another miracle, one that will let him walk again, as they try to understand how someone who came so close to dying may now have to live the rest of his life paralyzed.
"He's on a mission. He comes back. And then ..." said his high school football coach, Dominic Monica, his voice trailing off as it thickened with emotion and began to crack.
Sullivan, who received a Purple Heart, figured he could once again be crazy Chris, the fun-loving, prank-pulling guy who was looking forward to getting together for a party at a friend's house, just as he had done the year before.
It was approaching midnight on Dec. 23 when, according to Sullivan's family, an argument broke out among some party-goers over the merits of various NFL football teams.
When punches began to be thrown, Sullivan, always the peacemaker, according to friends, stepped in to break it up. He was shot twice, one of the bullets ripping through his spine.
The shooter fled before police arrived. Ruben Ray Jurado, 19, surrendered to authorities three days later. On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and is jailed on $1 million bail.
Shortly after he surrendered, Jurado's lawyer, Michael J. Holmes, said his client was being beaten and kicked by party-goers and was defending himself when Sullivan was shot.
The soldier's family and friends emphatically dispute that account.
"If Chris was in any way wrong, why did the guy run?" asked Peter Baltimore, one of Sullivan's closest friends. "Why didn't he wait until the cops got there and tell them his side of the story?"
And, he asked, why did Jurado, who once played football with Sullivan but was not a close friend, have a loaded gun?
"Any real friend of Chris would not have brought a gun to a party," Baltimore said, stopping to rest his head in his hands and compose himself as he sat on a friend's living room couch.
Sullivan remains hospitalized in critical condition. With a tube assisting his breathing, he's only able to answer yes or no questions from family and friends by blinking his eyes.
He has shown signs of improvement, according to his 20-year-old brother, Brandon. When his mother recently told him one of his nurses was exceptionally pretty, he smiled and moved his eyes to check her out.
When he is strong enough, his brother said, he will undergo surgery.
After that, doctors have told the family they'll have a better idea of his prospects for long-term recovery. For now, they say it appears he will remain paralyzed from the neck down.
It's hard for friends to grasp that because no one they knew embraced life more than Sullivan.
He excelled at wrestling and football at San Bernardino High School in this gritty, working-class city of 210,000 that generally goes unnoticed by people passing through on their way to Las Vegas or mountain resort towns.
"The one thing that kept him away from playing college ball was his size," Monica said. "He was probably 5-feet-10 and 180 pounds, but his heart was as big as a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder."
A relentless prankster, he also pulled the greatest practical joke Monica can remember.
In the last game of his high school career, his team losing, the clock running out, Sullivan sought out the biggest guy on the opposing team, tackled him after the ball was dead, picked him up and attempted to toss him over his shoulder.
When the angry referee threw a penalty flag at him and shouted, `You're out of here," Sullivan pulled his own penalty flag out of his pants and shouted, "No, ref, you're out of here."
By the time Monica got to the field, everyone from the opposing team's players to the referees was laughing.
"I said, `You played the whole game with a penalty flag in your pants?'," Monica recalled. "He said, `Yeah, it was bothering me, but I had to wait for the perfect time to throw it.'"
After high school, Sullivan got into mixed martial arts, hoping he might someday make that a career. After several successful amateur bouts he had turned pro and won his first fight, although he never bragged about it.
"He doesn't tell people because he doesn't want people to be intimidated by him," Baltimore said.
His ultimate dream, friends and family say, was to someday buy a nice home for his family and open a gym where he and all his friends could work out.
"He takes great care of his mother and his brothers and sisters," said neighbor Michelle Mueller, who lives next door on a leafy block of modest homes that is tucked into a corner of town just below the foothills.
It's a house Baltimore said Sullivan pressed the family to move to, to get his siblings away from street gangs.
As the family's oldest son, it was Sullivan's desire to provide for his single mother and four siblings that prompted him to forgo college for the Army.
"He was signed up to go to college, and he comes home right after school one day and goes, `Mom, I signed up for the Army instead,'" Brandon Sullivan recalls. "It was a shocker to all of us."
Friends and family say Sullivan doesn't see himself as any kind of hero because of his war injuries and doesn't like to talk about what happened when he was stationed in Afghanistan last December.
Now, his coach is praying that he will be saved again.
"Everybody is," Monica said quietly.