Hoping to save his mother from backbreaking labor harvesting almonds in California's Central Valley, Cristian Vazquez dreamed of one day becoming a doctor so she could afford to retire.
Vazquez, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, was scheduled to return home to Coalinga in September after a seven-month deployment to Iraq, and already was making plans to go to college to begin the road to medical school.
Instead, his family had to make different plans: for his funeral.
Vazquez died Aug. 2 from wounds suffered in a gun battle with insurgents in Rawah, near the Syrian border. He was 20.
"I'm so proud of him. He was my hero," said his father, Agustin, his voice choking with emotion. "He was everything to me."
Other family members and friends describe Vazquez as friendly, helpful, serious-minded and mature for his age. As a teenager, he would go to the community pool and teach younger children how to swim.
"Everybody looked up to him. Everybody saw him as a role model," said Luis Bravo, 17, a close friend of Vazquez who lived in the same apartment building.
Vazquez brought his leadership skills and high energy to the soccer field, where he was a tenacious defender.
"He really put his whole heart into playing the game," said Maria Sandoval, whose sons played on Vazquez's youth team.
He also loved the professional soccer team Cruz Azul from Mexico City, and his room was decorated with posters of players from the Mexican team.
But it was another uniform that he had been itching to wear ever since he was a child. He often talked of becoming a Marine, and he was 17 and in the 11th grade when he announced that he planned to join the military.
"He told his mother, 'I need a favor. I need you to sign the papers. If you love me, you will sign the papers,' " his father said. "When she did, he was so happy. He knew about the danger, but he was never afraid."
Instead, Vazquez, who cleaned tables at the Harris Ranch restaurant during school vacations, saw the military training and its entree into a college education as a way up for himself and his mother, Natividad Molina, who was separated from his father. Vazquez also has two younger brothers, Danny and Alejandro.
Vazquez entered the Marines just after graduation from Cambridge Continuation High School in Coalinga, where he had developed some expertise with computers.
After training near San Diego, he was assigned to the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
He was sent to Iraq's Al Anbar province, notorious for its high level of insurgent violence.
"He told everybody not to worry," Bravo said, recalling his last conversation with his friend.
Vazquez was riding in a jeep with other Marines when they came under fire, his father said. The Marines returned fire and gave chase when the insurgents began retreating, but another group of gunmen had moved up on their flank and Vazquez was shot in a barrage of gunfire.
"That was his first time fighting the enemy," his father said.
The young Marine was rushed to a medical unit but was pronounced dead, becoming the first Coalinga resident to die in the Iraq violence.
A group of Marines attended his funeral services, which were held with full military honors at Faith Fellowship Church and St. Paul's Catholic Church. Burial was at Pleasant Valley Cemetery.
His mother, who speaks only Spanish, wrote a note about her son that was translated and published in the Coalinga Record, Vazquez's hometown newspaper. It read:
"My beloved son, you were born on July 11, 1987, and you made me feel like the world's greatest mother. I still remember your first steps and your first days at school with your sad eyes from your classroom. You would wave at me and I wanted to come back and take you with me again. You became a grown man and I am very proud of you. Beloved son, I love you."