In letters, phone calls and e-mails from Iraq, Joseph Heredia went out of his way to shield his family from the hardship and heartbreak of war, even as he took on a second tour of duty that he sensed would be more dangerous.
"He loved the Marine Corps. He knew what his purpose was," said his wife, Natalia Heredia.
The 22-year-old corporal saw himself not only as a protector of his country but also as the guardian of his family's wellbeing. He took care to avoid upsetting loved ones with descriptions of life in a combat zone.
"He didn't want to talk about it," said his wife. "He would always say, 'It's something that can tear your heart apart' -- the situations they were put in and the things they saw. He kept us sheltered from all of that."
Heredia, of Santa Maria, died Nov. 20 of combat wounds he received Nov. 10 in Al Anbar Province, the Department of Defense said.
During his four years in the service, friends, relatives and strangers could tell he was a dedicated Marine. He sprinkled conversations with praise for the Corps and wore his uniform with pride.
Before he joined up, he diligently lifted weights to be sure he met the Marines' physical standards.
"He was big on staying in shape and didn't want to be overweight because he wanted to join the military," said Natalia, his high school sweetheart.
Heredia had no hesitation about going to Iraq for a second seven-month tour of duty that began in September. "He was ready for it" despite insurgent violence, his wife said.
"We talked about all situations before he left, if anything were to happen. We talked about everything down to where he would be buried. He knew it would be a lot more dangerous the second time. But he always told me, 'I'm going to come home.' "
Born in Madera, Calif., Heredia moved with his family to the Central Coast town of Santa Maria in the early 1990s. At Santa Maria High School, he played football and ran track.
For a few months after graduation in 2000, he worked two jobs, setting up banquet tables at the Santa Maria Inn and stocking shelves at a local grocery store. "He was a hard worker," his wife said.
He joined the Marine Corps in January 2001, shortly before the couple was married, and recently enlisted for a second four-year hitch. Heredia was based with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
Relatives could tell that Heredia's second tour of duty was more difficult than his first, from February to September 2003, because conditions kept him from communicating with them regularly.
"At first he would write letters and call when he could, but the conversations were maybe two minutes," his wife said. "Once things settled down, he was able to e-mail once in a while. He would say, 'I just want to let you know I'm OK.' "
In addition to his wife, survivors include his mother, Monica Diaz of Santa Maria, and his father, Jose Heredia of Fresno.
Burial was at Santa Maria Cemetery.