Although he was only 12 years old, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks profoundly changed Joshua Whittle and eventually sent him down a path from which he never wavered.
Whittle wanted nothing more than to become a U.S. Marine. He graduated from Columbus High School in Downey and enlisted. He told everyone he intended to make the Corps his career.
On June 6, three weeks after he arrived in Afghanistan for his first combat tour, Lance Cpl. Whittle was dead, the victim of a land mine. He was 20.
"He was here on leave before he left for Afghanistan," said his mother, Crystal Vincent, who was notified of her son's death shortly after she bought a Marine Corps flag. "He was ready. He'd tell me, 'Don't cry, Mom. I'll be fine.' . . . I was worried. But I was so proud of him. He loved his country."
Whittle was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. He was sent to Afghanistan's Helmand province, an opium-producing region and the scene of fierce fighting with the Taliban. He was buried recently at Riverside National Cemetery.
"My family and friends mean the world to me, and I would give anything for them," Whittle wrote not long ago on his MySpace page. "I love my job! I am a UNITED STATES MARINE."
Whittle always liked action, his mother said. As a teenager, he enjoyed skateboarding and bungee jumping, was an ultimate fighting fan and threw himself into the center of mosh pits at concerts. Friends called him M.D. because they thought he resembled the actor Matt Damon.
"We love you so much MD," reads a posting on Whittle's memorial page on The Times' California War Dead database at latimes.com/wardead. "But like I told you when you were resting in your casket, one day we will meet up again and we will mosh hard in heaven, and let nothing stand in our way!"
Yet, Vincent says her son was also soft-spoken and a gentleman with the girls he dated.
"He was straight edge," Vincent said. "He didn't drink. He didn't smoke. . . . We raised him to treat people the way you wanted to be treated."
Carl Matson Jr., Vincent's longtime boyfriend, helped raise Whittle and considers him an adopted son.
"He was a great little guy," Matson said. "And he grew up to be a respectful young man who always took the side of the underdog."
Matson, an Army veteran, recalled that after 9/11, Joshua began asking him about his service. And by the time he was in high school, Joshua announced that he was aiming to be a Marine. A tougher outfit, he liked to say.
"He was just like a lot of young guys of his generation who saw their country being attacked on television that morning," Matson said. "It was messing with their turf."