When George Howell told his hometown friends that, at age 24, he had decided to enlist in the Army despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they tried to talk him out of it.
His best friend, Derek Paris, remembers Howell as unshakable.
"He just said, 'I have to do what I have to do to take care of my family,' " Paris said.
And so Howell left the Monterey County community of Prunedale for Army boot camp in Georgia in search of economic security for his wife and two small children, and training that might transfer to the civilian job market once his active-duty hitch was finished.
As with many enlistees, Howell's attitude toward the Army varied. Some days he would tell his wife that he could not wait to get out and, perhaps, go to college. Other days he talked of making the Army a career and applying for one of the elite units.
But before he could pursue either course, his unit, the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, was deployed from Ft. Drum, N.Y., to Iraq.
The private first class, who loved football and riding four-wheel-drive vehicles at the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, was assigned as a driver in the motor pool. The 10th Mountain Division has responsibility to provide security in the volatile Kirkuk region and assist in training Iraqi security forces.
On Dec. 21, Howell was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb outside Riyadh, north of Baghdad. Four other soldiers were injured, two critically.
Howell's wife, Kristen, who is three months pregnant, was the first family member to be officially notified. She called her in-laws in California from her home in Watertown, N.Y.
"We're still in a state of shock," said Howell's sister, Chardell. "It doesn't seem real."
Howell had attended Seaside High School and North Monterey County High before leaving without graduating. Later he passed the test for his general equivalency diploma. For several years, he worked with Paris and Paris' father in their floor-installation business.
"He was just a hard-working dude," Paris said. "It's like losing a brother."
Kristen's mother, Dana Hensley, said she was proud of her son-in-law when he enlisted. "He kept getting laid off at work," she said, "and so he stepped up and did the right thing to take care of the people he loved."
The Army seemed a natural fit for Howell. His father, who died in 2001, served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Other family members had also been in the military. Howell signed up for a three-year hitch on active duty, followed by reserve duty.
He and Kristen had known each other since junior high school.
In his last call from Iraq, she said, her husband seemed tired of the multiple missions "outside the wire" but was more concerned with the well-being of his son, Raiden, 2, and daughter, Niya, 5.
"He had the biggest heart of anyone you'd ever meet," Kristen said. "If you were his friend and you were true, he loved you."
Hensley, who also lives in Prunedale, remembers her son-in-law's final call from Iraq.
"I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me too," she said. "I said for him to be safe. He said, 'I'll do the best I can.' "
Hensley said she will always remember his smile. "When he smiled, his whole face lit up," she said.
Kristen and the children plan to move from New York back to the Prunedale area to be near her family. She said the children are struggling with the idea that their father is gone forever.
"My daughter especially realizes that Daddy is dead," she said. "She cries and she misses him. But she's doing a lot better than me. I cry a lot more."
Howell's burial is scheduled for Jan. 25 at Arlington National Cemetery. It would have been his 25th birthday.