The opportunity to work in the mountains of Afghanistan was too good for Phillip Allen Bocks to pass up, especially after he had spent two years teaching others how to survive in difficult terrain.
The Marine Corps sergeant had been stationed at the Pickel Meadow Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, Calif., showing other troops how to use pack mules for combat in rugged regions.
Friends said he was getting restless. So, last spring, Bocks volunteered to serve as an advisor with an embedded training team in eastern Afghanistan's mountainous Nuristan province. It was, friends said, a perfect fit for the easygoing but adventurous native of Troy, Mich.
"He was at that point in his career and life where he was trying to figure it all out for himself," said Sgt. Arlen Gentert, who worked with Bocks at the Bridgeport center's horse stables. "He was excited about going. This was his chance to do what he'd been teaching."
On Nov. 9, Bocks and 13 other U.S. soldiers were returning from a meeting with elders from the village of Aranus when they were ambushed by militants using rocket-propelled grenades and firearms, said Capt. Abel Espinosa from the Bridgeport center. Bocks, 28, died immediately. Five other Americans died in the attack and eight were wounded, Espinosa said. Three Afghan soldiers were killed.
The next day, Bocks' father, Kent Bocks, 63, was driving from Truckee, Calif., to San Jose when he heard news of an attack in Afghanistan on the radio, he said. He wondered whether his son had been affected. Not until half an hour later, when representatives from the Marines called asking for a meeting, did he realize that his son was dead.
Bocks is also survived by his stepmother in Truckee, his mother in Detroit and an uncle and cousins in Reno.
A gun and outdoors enthusiast, Bocks joined the military in 2000 at age 20, training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C. He had no relatives in the military, and his father said family members did not understand his desire to join.
"He kind of had to explain himself to us, but he never regretted the decision," his father said. "He loved it from the beginning. He was probably going to stay in and become a lifer."
Before he signed up for service in the Middle East, with training stops in Japan and Hawaii, Bocks had been scheduled to transfer from the Bridgeport center to another unit.
And although his patrol shifts over the harsh Afghanistan terrain were difficult, Bocks never complained in his frequent e-mails and phone calls to his family, his father said. Instead, he was focused on trying to find a car for an upcoming tour of duty in Hawaii.
Teachers at Tahoe Truckee High School remembered Bocks as a perpetually optimistic student who participated in the swim club and stole the show in school plays.
In a play based on the Li'l Abner comic strip, Bocks performed a slapstick routine in which he pretended to drag a wooden anvil across the stage, said librarian Jan Polochko, who helped organize the show. Bocks developed a reputation for ingenious physical comedy.
Hoping to break into the culinary industry, he moved back to Michigan for his senior year of high school. For two years after graduation, he worked as a chef at the Rochester Chop House and Ann Arbor Country Club, earning raves long after he left.
Bocks also was married for several years, but the relationship broke up when the young couple realized that they were not compatible, his father said.
Soon after he arrived at the Bridgeport center in 2005, Bocks had a large group of friends, Gentert said. "He could talk into or out of any situation," Gentert said. "He had the gift of gab and could naturally just talk to people."
On his MySpace.com page, Bocks wrote that he loved his family and friends, as well as action movies and buddy comedies.
Gentert said Bocks pursued activities fervently, and always with a smile.
Known for cooking tender tri-tip and quirky culinary inventions, Bocks often jokingly chased people out of his kitchen. He was a skier and snowboarder who dominated every trail. He and Gentert went on packing trips to Montana, and, in his spare time, Bocks roared around on motorcycles and dirt bikes.
"Anything he took an interest to, he went all out and full force into it, even if he didn't necessarily have years of experience backing him up," Gentert said.
But to Gentert, Bocks' most endearing trait was his loyalty to friends. "If you needed something, he would bend over backward to help you," Gentert said. "He'd give you a bad time about it later, but he'd be there when you needed him."
Before he left for Afghanistan, Bocks talked to his family about what to do if he died, his father said. Being able to follow his son's wishes by scattering his ashes over his beloved Sierra Nevada helped Kent Bocks cope with his loss. But still, "it's not easy," he said.
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Total U.S. deaths*:
* In and around Iraq**: 3,915
* In and around Afghanistan***: 409
* Other locations***: 63
*Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances
**As of Friday
***As of Jan. 5
Source: Department of Defense