A Marine from Greensboro was killed Thursday when the armored vehicle he was in hit a roadside bomb in central Iraq.
Lance Cpl. Andrew David Russoli, 21, died near Nasser Wa Salaam, a town not far from Fallujah. Two other Camp Lejeune-based Marines died with him.
Russoli's friends gathered at his mother's house Saturday in Greensboro. They recalled a man with an infectious laugh who was always on the lookout for sublime movie quotes.
His mother, Sally White, remembered a boy who played with G.I. Joe figures and hoped that someday he, too, would wear a soldier's fatigues. "He just loved to play with military things," she said.
As a teenager, he told his friends that he wanted to be a Marine or a Navy SEAL. He ended up following his best friend, Marlin Adams, into the Marines after graduating from high school in 2003. "He was a good man, the best, very loyal, and he wanted to do what was right," White said of her son.
Russoli completed his first tour of duty in Iraq earlier this year. He estimated that he was in 19 fire fights, saw more than two dozen bombs explode and endured long, uncomfortable days without food or sleep.
After he returned home, he put on his dress uniform one Sunday and spoke to his church, College Park Baptist in Winston-Salem.
"Most of you cannot fathom doing some of the things my boys and I have done, and that's OK; you don't have to," he said, according to a written version of the speech. "Most of what you see on CNN are all the bad events that are going on. What you don't see are the Marines passing out toys to children, giving tools to farmers and supplies to schools, not to mention the countless hours spent socializing and learning about each other's cultures."
He said he was just glad to be alive. People had shot at him. At least once, a bomb had blown up under his Humvee.
"There were many times when we would be running into a fight or being blown up when I thought to myself, 'This is it,' " he said. "And then I would look to the Marine to my right and to my left and we would all say, 'So let's go out in a blaze of fire and see who's coming with us.' "
In the audience, people who watched Russoli grow up realized he had become a man, said family friend Juanita Lojko. His mother swelled with pride.
"It was just a shining moment," she said. "Especially for me because he was home safe."
Russoli was a proud soldier, but friends said he was not excited to return to Fallujah this summer. "He was ready to come home," said Daniel Ingram, a minister at Russoli's church.
When he went back to Iraq, Russoli continued to talk with his mother about his future. He was considering college, she said, along with the possibility of becoming a private security guard in Iraq.
That conversation ended Thursday, when four Marines showed up at her house. Now, she said, she is waiting for Adams, Russoli's best friend, to bring her son's body home.
(Staff researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)