TAMPA, Fla. — Andy Aviles still collected basketball cards. They remain stacked in orderly piles on a bookcase at the foot of his bed, competing for space with toy cars, high school letterman awards, graduation photos and other markers of a boy's life.
On the wall above where he slept, near the academic medals and baseball caps hanging from the bedposts, he had affixed the emblem of the U.S. Marine Corps, whose uniform he wore when an Iraqi artillery shell struck his armored vehicle near Baghdad and killed him.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Julian Aviles was just 18, preparing for his freshman year at Florida State University, when his country called on him to do a man's job. He had committed to the Marine Corps Reserves before his senior year at Robinson High School in south Tampa, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, before there was any talk of invading Iraq.
Less than a year after leading the Pledge of Allegiance at his high school graduation, the former student council president and cheerleader found himself preparing to cross the Tigris River last April 7 in the siege of Baghdad. He never made it.
Aviles was one of seven U.S. soldiers in the Iraqi conflict, three of them from California, who were 18 when they died, out of more than 500 American casualties so far.
Their grieving families say they had just begun to ponder adult lives that stretched out before them. Some regarded their service in Iraq as a kind of destiny. Others had their eyes on grander plans.
Each 18-year-old's story was unique:
* Army Pvt. David Evans of Buffalo, N.Y., had a baby boy he never got to see. A former city hall intern, he joined the military with plans for a law enforcement career. He was killed May 25 in a munitions explosion.
At his funeral, mourners wore T-shirts emblazoned with a photo of his young son with the words, "The legacy still continues."
* Pfc. Daniel R. Parker of Lake Elsinore followed his father and grandfather into the Army, believing it to be more a moral obligation than a family tradition. He died in a vehicle accident Aug. 12.
On July 23, Parker was part of the team sent to the villa where two sons of Saddam Hussein were hiding. Uday and Qusai Hussein were killed in the gunfight. News photographers took Parker's picture standing in front of the building with his gun.
* Marine Lance Cpl. Cory Ryan Geurin of Santee signed his enlistment papers after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even before he finished high school.
He told his mother, Darlene Geurin: " 'Mom, they're messin' with my country, and I won't let it happen.' "
He died after falling from the roof of an Iraqi palace that he was guarding July 15, exactly one year after starting boot camp.
* Army Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto of El Paso, Texas, was born in Mexico and became a naturalized citizen a few years ago. He enlisted right after high school, even though his father was against it. He died when a convoy he was riding in was ambushed March 23.
* Army Pfc. Charles M. Sims of Miami set his sights on the Army in ninth grade when he enrolled in the ROTC. The military police officer drowned in a swimming pool in Baghdad on Oct. 3.
* Army Spc. Michael Mihalakis of San Jose died the day after Christmas when his Humvee hit a berm near the Baghdad airport, throwing him from the vehicle and crushing him underneath. He was a military police officer with the Army National Guard.
In letters home to his parents, Mihalakis wrote insightfully of his coming of age.
"Before I left for basic, I told you guys I lived a life of little, if any, adversity," he wrote on June 6. "I thrived [on] the need to experience adversity and hardship to become the man I want to be.
"My lesson in adversity and hardship is something that can't be priced and is the ultimate reason I want to stay, rather than go home early. Whatever happens will happen, but in the end, as much as I hate it here, this is where I want to be."
Not Aviles. Although he felt a call to national service, he wanted more than anything to be in the north Florida college town of Tallahassee. He graduated third in his high school class, earning a full academic scholarship to Florida State. He already knew that he wanted to major in business and go into real estate someday, because that's where the money is.
"It's a big waste of his life," said Andy's father, Oscar Aviles, who still struggles to contain his anger and resentment. "He probably could have done anything he wanted to do in life. Because he had the intelligence, he had the capability and he had the discipline to do whatever he set his mind on."
A member of the ROTC in high school, Andy Aviles waved off suggestions that he apply for a military academy appointment. Too much structure. The gregarious, charismatic teenager hankered for what he called "the full college experience."