Before Army Spc. Louis G. Kim came home from Iraq on Christmas leave, his childhood buddy worried that the military and the war might have changed him.
But the funny, irreverent kid who could always make people laugh was the same.
"That was when I was finally convinced and relieved that he wasn't changing," Tyson Manalo recalled. "He would always be my friend Louis."
It was the last time Manalo would see Kim.
The 19-year-old Hacienda Heights man was killed by small-arms fire Feb. 20 as he crawled between buildings during a gun battle in Ramadi, Iraq, west of Baghdad.
He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in Schweinfurt, Germany.
The military had beckoned to Kim from a young age. When he and Manalo jogged to their Irvine grade school to avoid being late, Kim would tell Manalo to pretend that they were training for the Navy SEALs.
When Kim moved to Chicago for a couple of years during high school, he drove to Oklahoma with a group of friends to reenact D-day during a weeklong paintball tournament on the plains. And he loved the graphically realistic World War II movie "Saving Private Ryan."
Kim enlisted as soon as he graduated from Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights in 2005, and was sent to Iraq last summer from Germany.
He did well in marksmanship and hoped to become an Army Ranger. But he never took himself too seriously.
"He was always the big class clown," Manalo said.
Kim's mother, Bridget Shin, didn't want her son to enlist.
"What parent would want that when there is a war going on?" she said. "But he was insistent."
She said today would have been his 20th birthday.
"He was a good boy," she added, her voice cracking. "He never went to play pool or stay out late or not come home."
Kim's parents divorced when he was young, and in high school he moved several times: to the Midwest, to the East and then back to Southern California.
"We both had kind of tough childhoods," Manalo said.
"We would share that, and he would always find some way to laugh about it. Even if we both felt bad about something, he would still find a way to cheer us both up."
Brian Lee, who was Kim's youth pastor at Bethel Korean Church in Irvine, said part of the military's appeal to Kim was its stability.
"Louis always wanted structure," he said. "Some place to really belong."
Kim was smart but preferred devoting his energies to playing the drums in high school or acting in church camp skits as a child.
"He was crazy and energetic," Lee said. "A kid that could drive you crazy but you couldn't help but love."
When he was home on Christmas leave in December, Kim told Manalo that he had killed two Iraqi combatants.
"He felt he was doing his duty," Manalo said.
"I don't think he worried" about his own safety.
Times staff writer K. Connie Kang contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Total U.S. deaths*:
* In and around Iraq**: 3,197
* In and around Afghanistan***: 309
* Other locations***: 60
Source: Department of Defense\o7* Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances
\f7\o7**As of Friday
***As of March 10