After high school, while his parents lived in Europe for several years, Matthew G. Axelson of Cupertino, Calif., saw a chance to learn about the world and eagerly took advantage of it.
Using his parents' overseas homes as his base, he traveled to Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, England, Poland, Holland and Germany.
As a political science major in college, he had a penchant for comparing other countries to the U.S., recalled his father, Cordell, who was a telecommunications manager in Europe.
"It made him appreciate the freedoms and opportunities we have in this country," added his schoolteacher mother, Donna. "He wanted to give something back."
But Axelson wanted adventure as well. In 2000, he enlisted in the Navy and earned a place in the elite SEAL unit.
A year later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks strengthened his resolve to serve his country.
"I asked him, 'If this had happened before you joined, would you still have done it?' and he said, 'Absolutely, because the world is a more dangerous place,' " his mother said.
He told her, "If I can work [fighting terrorism] and get rid of some of the bad guys, I'll be happy."
Axelson, a 29-year-old petty officer 2nd class, was part of a four-man SEAL unit ambushed June 28 in the Kunar province of Afghanistan while searching for Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.
One SEAL was rescued July 3 and two were found dead the next day. Axelson's body was recovered July 10 after an extensive search, during which 16 Army and Navy commandos perished in a helicopter crash.
Gregg Hurwitz, 31, a Los Angeles crime novelist, said his tall, well-muscled friend was gentle and philosophical, even when it came to military duty.
"Matt had a very deep current of patriotism, but there was nothing dogmatic about him," Hurwitz said. "He wasn't the unthinking soldier. He was smart enough to seek an understanding of the cultures they were interacting with."
Even as a youngster, Axelson seemed to grasp the need for a harmonious world.
His mother recalled, "One day when he was about 5, he said, 'You know how we're supposed to pray for our enemies? Are we supposed to pray for Satan?' I thought that was a really deep question for a 5-year-old."
After graduating from Cupertino's Monta Vista High School in 1994, Axelson attended Cal State Chico for four years and earned a political science degree.
After Axelson decided to enter the military, a friend who was a SEAL helped persuade him to try for the top-notch Navy unit. Axelson lifted weights, ran, swam, took scuba lessons "and did all the things he would need" to qualify for the SEALs before he even enlisted, his mother said.
Axelson, who was assigned to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was deployed to Afghanistan in April.
"When I found out it was Afghanistan, I was relieved because I thought it's safer there," his mother said.
Axelson e-mailed his wife, Cindy, 27, whom he married in 2003, and other family members almost daily but said little about his work. Three days before the ambush, he turned 29. But his parents have no idea how he spent his birthday.
"The last time we heard from him was June 20, the day after Father's Day," Cordell Axelson said. "He just said he was working and doing a little bit of everything he was trained to do."
The SEAL didn't mention it, but he was sending a Father's Day present -- a shop manual, which he ordered on the Internet, for a 1973 Triumph TR6 the two planned to restore when he returned home.
"It arrived a few days after he went missing," his father said.
In addition to his wife and parents, Axelson is survived by a brother, Jeff, of San Diego. Axelson was buried Thursday at Glen Oaks Memorial Park in Chico, Calif.