By STEPHEN BARTLETT
PLATTSBURGH -- U.S. Army Specialist Mathew Laforest had a contagious smile.
The 21-year-old with local ties died in an ambush this past Friday in Taji, Iraq, after only a month at war.
People, most of them from Texas, posted messages -- some leaving only their first names -- on a guest book at www.legacy.com in honor of the fallen soldier.
He is a hero never to be forgotten and died so that "we live as free Americans," said Stuart from Cedar Park, Texas.
"As a mother, my heart aches for you," posted Holly Mullins of New Braunfels, Texas. "As an American, I thank you for your sacrifice."
Mullins, whose own son graduated from high school this past weekend and leaves next month for basic training, sent her prayers to the Laforest family.
Donna's son graduated from Bowie High School with Laforest in Austin, Texas.
She wrote to the Laforest family: "Our hearts go out to you. What a fine young man. God bless you and Matthew always."
Another woman from Austin, Texas, named Anna thanked Laforest for her freedom.
"You have paid the ultimate price."
Others sent out their thoughts and prayers, admitting they couldn't begin to understand the depth of the family's grief.
"I do not know the Laforest family nor have I had the honor of meeting Matthew," wrote Shannon Ray from Hutto, Texas. "But even so, please accept my heartfelt condolences and know that I have sent a special prayer to our Father for Matthew."
An Austin mother named Patty said her son Anthony was also a friend of Laforest. The pair participated in band and ROTC together.
"He (Anthony) is grieving for the loss of someone he describes as a really great person, someone he could talk to about anything. As Anthony is in the Navy, I sincerely sympathize with you for the loss of your wonderful son."
Yolanda Valdez, also from Austin, said her heart broke as she signed the guest book. She lost her only son in 2004 and wanted the Laforest family to know they were not alone in their pain.
"We will forever be united in the loss of our heroes."
Valdez still flies her flag and proudly displays a Marine sticker on her vehicle.
"May he rest in peace knowing that he is loved and remembered by those who knew him."
Mary Delfino's son is in the Army, stationed in Virginia and soon heads to Iraq.
"Just want you to know that my deepest sympathy is with your family."
Renee Owens of Dickinson said the state of Texas "mourns for the loss of another of its sons."
Laforest worked with Amie Hodgin's husband for the past two years at Fort Lewis, Wash. She said Laforest brought a smile to everyone's face and spent a few holidays with her family.
"My prayers are going out to his family and friends. I am truly grateful that I had the pleasure of knowing Spc. Laforest."