When Marine Lance Cpl. Ray A. Spencer II and his future wife were first getting to know each other, they found a mutual interest in history.
Spencer's favorite eras were Greek and Roman. He liked stories of ancient battles. "Nerdy stuff," remembered his widow, Athena Spencer.
At Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, Calif., he enrolled in the Junior ROTC program. "From the day I met him, his lifelong dream was to be a Marine," said George Anderson, who taught Spencer naval science during his freshman year.
Within weeks of graduating from Burroughs, Spencer acted on his dream.
"Ray joined when he was 17," said his father, a retired Navy man. "He had a love of the Marine Corps which I could never understand."
Tall, on the skinny side and well-liked by his classmates, Spencer was determined to be a soldier, even against the advice of his father and Anderson, who assured him the military "wasn't all guns and glory and pretty uniforms."
As a teenager, Spencer had a great sense of humor that Anderson said got him "in little bits of trouble."
He was also a leader.
"The students just loved the guy," Anderson said. "They would follow him anywhere."
While in boot camp, the teenager returned to Burroughs with a recruiter, "gung-ho" and "very proud of that uniform," Anderson recalled.
Spencer, a rifleman, was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
He shipped out for his first deployment to Iraq in July 2007, about the same time he struck up a phone and e-mail relationship with Athena. Friends had put them in touch.
"He was really sweet and caring and just different from other guys," said Athena, 20.
They didn't meet until March 2008, when Spencer was home on leave visiting family. Within months, they were married and she joined him in Hawaii.
"He was perfect for me. Everything I ever wanted in a person," Athena said. "I don't know anyone who ever disliked him."
She said her husband wanted to make the military a career because he felt he would be doing something good with his life. He returned to Iraq this spring. But days into his second deployment, on April 16, he shot himself in the chest with his rifle in a base bathroom at Camp Ramadi, according to a Marine Corps investigation. He was 20.
The investigation uncovered no obvious reason for his suicide.
His commanders did not believe he had been in a firefight during his time in Iraq, nor was anyone he knew seriously injured.
He was involved in a minor infraction the day of his death: He left a vehicle he was ordered to watch. But his fellow Marines told investigators that Spencer never made big mistakes and was the "best M249 SAW gunner in the platoon."
Ray Spencer was born in Hanford, Calif., and spent his childhood with his grandmother and aunt in the Los Angeles area. In 2002, he moved to Ridgecrest to live with his father.
"He was a great kid, my only son. I loved him very much," his father said. "I never approved of him going in the military . . . I figured me doing 22 years was more than enough."
The Department of Defense initially said that Spencer's death was under investigation, describing it as the result of a "nonhostile incident."
"It was just a very painful thing when I found out" that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted, Athena said in an e-mail. "My only worry was that people would think less of him because of it. He was a very kind and wonderful person and [I] just hope people can understand."