By Jeff Truesdell
January 21, 2013 12:00 PM

Ty Ziegel wouldn’t quit. A strikingly handsome young Marine wounded by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004, he overcame devastating injuries to resume life and marry the fiancée he’d left before he went to war (PEOPLE, Nov. 13, 2006). Even after they divorced in 2007, he remained resolutely upbeat, staying friends with ex Renee Kline, enjoying a new relationship and riding around on the three-wheel, custom-painted Harley that was his pride and joy. “He never asked, ‘Why did this happen to me?'” says Zach Bitner, 30, Ty’s high school friend from Metamora, Ill., who served with him. “He was having fun, just living life.”

Tragically, that life was cut short in the early-morning hours of Dec. 26, when the 30-year-old collapsed and died after joining friends at a local bar. As of press time, autopsy results were pending; his mother, Becky Ziegel, told the coroner he had a history of seizures.

He never embraced the term “hero,” but those who knew him said he was one. After joining the Marines right out of school in 2001 (his younger brother Zachary, now 27, followed in his footsteps), he was patrolling in Anbar province with six other Marines when his truck was hit by a suicide car bomber. Ziegel, a machine gunner, was engulfed in flames; he underwent 30 surgeries and lost sight in one eye, his left arm below the elbow and three fingers on his right hand. But he never lost hope. “He was the same person he’d always been,” Bitner says. “He was just happy.”