If he could have, Ming Sun would have joined the Army soon after he graduated from Cathedral City High School in 2004.
"He wanted to do something for his country," said his father, David. "He loved the military. He wanted to be a man, you know, like a soldier."
But Sun, who came to the United States from China in 1995, wasn't a citizen and lacked a green card -- the proof of legal residency required by the military, his father said.
So Sun went to a local community college until his green card was granted. Then, without telling his parents, he enlisted in March, requesting the infantry, his father said.
"We, both parents, didn't want him to go," his father said, speaking for himself and his wife, Zhi Feng Liu. "We wanted him to be a scientist."
But Ming Sun launched eagerly into a military whirlwind, his friends recalled. He did his basic training at Ft. Carson, Colo., where in mid-August he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Two months later, he was sent to Iraq, his father said.
On Jan. 9, less than 10 months after he enlisted, the 20-year-old private first class was killed when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire while on patrol in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
He is believed to be the first Chinese national to be killed in the Iraq war, his father said.
As they grieve, David Sun and his son's friends wonder if it all didn't happen too fast.
"I don't think it's right," said David Sun, who owns a Chinese buffet-style restaurant in nearby Palm Springs. "They are not trained that much.... I think there is something wrong with the system."
Tristan Reparejo, a friend since junior high school, said he could hear a change in Ming Sun during calls from Iraq.
"Maybe the fact that he, or anyone who was sent over there to that specific area, realized how dangerous it was there with that limited amount of training," Reparejo said.
"There are people that serve in the Army for such a long time and nothing happens to them. For someone to be just sent there and in just nine months have it taken away -- it's just unbelievable."
Sun's friends said they will miss his fun-loving spirit.
"He was full of life," said Brenda Flores, who went to high school with Sun. "He was always smiling."
Flores and others recalled Sun's passion for fast cars and his devotion to his Mitsubishi Evo. He and his friends formed a car club called J-Spec, for Japanese specifications, and traveled to car races and shows.
"We all wanted to get white cars so we could stand out in high school," said friend Eddie Torno.
As teenagers, Sun and his friends played a computer war game and talked about what it would be like to be in a combat situation.
"I guess he was more serious about the whole idea of actually going out there and putting himself in that situation," Reparejo said.
David Sun said he last spoke to his son four days before he died. Ming Sun asked if his father had received some photos he had e-mailed and spoke happily of coming home for two weeks' vacation in February. "I said, 'Be careful,' and he said, 'OK,' " David Sun recalled.
At Ming Sun's funeral Jan. 22, an Army representative presented his parents with the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and documents granting him U.S. citizenship. Sun is buried at Riverside National Cemetery. A tree will be planted in Cathedral City in his honor.
In addition to his parents, Sun is survived by a 9-year-old sister, Allison.