Milton Manuel Monzon Jr. declined his parents' offer to help pay for college. Fresh out of Los Angeles High School, he wanted independence and joined the Army, fulfilling a childhood dream and surprising his relatives.
After four years of service, the military became Monzon's "second family," said his mother, Cecilia, a nurse. "He finished growing up in the Army."
A sergeant, Monzon deployed to Iraq in March 2003. He was a Bradley fighting vehicle gunner assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment at Ft. Carson, Colo.
He didn't tell his parents that he had been wounded by shrapnel in his chest at the end of that tour. It was something they discovered when they saw his scars.
He deployed for a second tour in March. He was 21, and he and his wife, Christy, were newly married. He told his parents that he didn't want his Army "brothers" to go back alone.
Monzon sought to reassure his father on the phone from Iraq, telling him, "It's not as bad as the first time."
Later, Milton Monzon Sr., a construction ironworker, suspected that his son's words were only meant to make him worry less.
Both parents said they felt uneasy. When their eldest son returned home in June for a two-week visit, Cecilia Monzon took him out to dinner.
"I felt scared," she remembered. "I was afraid that when he went back, something would happen." She kept hugging and kissing her son.
During that visit, Sgt. Monzon bought a suit.
"Why are you buying something so expensive?" his father remembers asking.
"It's probably the last suit I'll own," his son answered.
On the day he reported back to duty, Cecilia Monzon was surprised to see that her son, always so punctual, was dawdling. He woke up late and moved slowly, almost missing his plane, she remembers.
This deployment was different, she recalls thinking. Maybe because her son was a newlywed.
Monzon met Christy while stationed at Ft. Carson. At Christmas, he got on one knee and proposed to her in front of his family. She accepted.
In January, the couple wed secretly. Monzon told his mother that he just wanted to start his new life and didn't want to wait for a big wedding.
Christy, one friend said, was Monzon's soul mate. The couple had hoped to have a large wedding reception and start a family when he returned from deployment. Christy already was looking for just the right gown for the party.
On July 24, Monzon was killed when a bomb detonated near his Bradley fighting vehicle in Baghdad. Christy -- who was living with Monzon's mother and 16-year-old brother, Marvyn -- got the news first.
News of the death hit Monzon's father hard, particularly because he was opposed to the war.
"It seems like we're fighting for no reason," he said. "But as a father, my son made me proud. He made everyone proud because he was doing what he wanted to do."
Monzon's awards and decorations include a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal.
It was Monzon's professionalism as a cavalryman, and his guitar playing, that impressed his fellow soldiers.
"Sgt. Monzon would gladly teach you everything that he knew, and he was also willing to be taught," one friend said.
"As a soldier, his dedication and work ethic were unparalleled. He strove to be the best he could, and, in my opinion, he achieved that goal."