During the quieter moments of soldiering, Army National Guard Capt. Raymond D. Hill II liked to talk cookouts. He savored it all: from a good barbecue sauce to memories of time spent with family and friends.
A fellow commander in the Guard's Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Regiment, Maj. Dan Markert, recalled a busy training assignment in Hawaii a few years ago. Battalion officers had to be out of bed and into a van by 5:30 each morning.
Hill sometimes broke the sleepy silence riffing about a barbecue or an outing with relatives back in Stanislaus County.
"He was a funny, down-home guy," said Markert, who worked with Hill for eight years. "Very family."
Hill, 39, commanded 36 soldiers who directed artillery fire and close air support.
On Oct. 29, he and another guardsman were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee in southern Baghdad. The blast followed raids earlier that day that netted 39 suspected insurgents in the area, Markert said.
Hill was on his way to deliver educational supplies and humanitarian aid to Iraqis affected by military operations, officials said.
Raised in Ceres, Calif., an agricultural center in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Hill competed in track at the local high school and joined the National Guard in 1987, two years after graduating. He married, earned a bachelor's degree from Cal State Stanislaus and went to work as an engineer technician with the Modesto Irrigation District.
But he never left the Guard.
After 10 years, he was commissioned as an officer and later developed a reputation as a strong advocate for soldiers under his command. He put in many volunteer hours, often after working a full day at his civilian job, to ensure that members of his unit received training, benefits and awards, Markert said.
Memorial tributes posted on the Internet by those who served with Hill called him "kind and gentle," "a big teddy bear" and "a classic Guardsman."
"His passion was his family, and the military," said Ron Hill, Ray's brother. "He loved what he was doing."
Hill's unit did a first Middle East tour in 2001, heading to Kuwait as terrorists struck New York and the Pentagon. He returned to Iraq in January.
He wrote his wife, Dena, soon after arriving. Balancing obligations to his family -- including daughters BreeAnna, 13, and Alyssa, 10 -- and the military wasn't always easy or convenient, he wrote.
"My heart aches for the time I am missing; missing important dates, events and special moments. I know you think I see this as just a big adventure and a carefree event for me.
"I admit I was willing to go. After all, this is what I have trained for, for the past 18 years.... If I did not go, someone else would have to."
Hill's unit operates in a heavily Sunni Muslim area that has been a hotspot of insurgent attacks.
Since mid-September, 11 members of the 184th Regiment have been killed. Three officers were fatally wounded in bomb attacks in a single week, including Hill and a colonel, the highest-ranking commander killed in the war.
Ron Hill said his brother, who e-mailed and spoke with family members two days before he died, never expressed despair over casualties or fear for his own safety.
Instead, he was encouraged by the appreciation he received from Iraqis, especially children, Ron Hill said.
"The gratitude he experienced was 'beyond comprehension.' Those were some of his words."