Those who knew Cole Larsen say he was destined to be in uniform. From playing with GI Joes as a boy to riding his bike to a local recruiting center as a middle school student, the Canyon Country youth wanted to serve in the military.
"He came out of the womb with camo on. It was something that was just part of him growing up," said his mother, Christi. "I have a picture of him at 5 years old wearing a camouflage helmet with a toy gun in his hand."
Army Pfc. Cole William Larsen, 19, a military policeman stationed in Iraq, was escorting fellow soldiers between Baghdad and Fallouja on Nov. 13 when a civilian truck collided with his armored military vehicle, causing it to roll over and kill him.
He was assigned to the 272nd Military Police Company, 21st Theater Support Command in Mannheim, Germany.
The fatal accident occurred about two weeks following Larsen's return to the war zone after a 16-day visit home. The Bronze Medal recipient kept his mid-October arrival a secret from his mother and 17-year-old sister, Haley. Larsen called his father, Ballard, just days before -- as he was leaving an airport in Kuwait.
Ballard Larsen said his son, who loved the outdoors, hunting and dirt bikes, shared combat stories when they had private moments together.
Cole described a near-miss when an improvised bomb exploded in front of his unit's vehicle. And he told of how he and a team leader foiled an attempted kidnapping and saved the lives of two Iraqi civilian policemen. "Some of the battles he had were intense," said childhood friend Chad Whitaker, a fellow 2003 graduate of Canyon High School.
Larsen's popularity was evident Nov. 19, when hundreds of fans at his high school's playoff football game paid respects during a pregame tribute to the fallen soldier.
"Imagine a football stadium filled with teenagers in absolute silence," said Debby Arteaga, a neighbor of the Larsens who attended the game. "I have never seen something so respectful in my life. You could have heard a pin drop. I couldn't believe it."
The Hart Union High School District Air Force Junior ROTC presented Larsen's parents with a plaque at the ceremony and arranged to have Cole's name added to the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Memorial wall at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall. Upward of 500 people attended the subsequent funeral held for Larsen, who was cremated.
Ballard Larsen said the family kept a cupful of Cole's remains and plans to scatter the ashes near the top of one of his favorite dirt bike trails next year, either on his birthday or the anniversary of his death.
"You know what I'm going to miss the most? I was done being his parent and he was becoming my friend," his father said. "I'm going to miss my best friend."