Charles O. Palmer II could never quite get the Marine Corps out of his system. After a four-year stint that ended in the mid-1990s, he never found another job "equal to the Marines." That's what he wrote in a letter to the service, explaining why he wanted to reenlist.
"It is home," he wrote in late 2005. Nowhere else had he found such camaraderie, loyalty and comfort.
"The whole time he was out, he had the Marine haircut, the Marine attitude," said his father, Chuck. "He was the Marine's Marine."
That didn't stop the senior Palmer from worrying about his son's tour of duty in Iraq.
"When I thought about my son being a driver -- trucks or Humvees are the most popular target for roadside bombs. He said, 'Dad, the war is dangerous.' It didn't matter if he was a foot soldier or driver. He reassured me that everything was going to be OK."
But on May 5, the 36-year-old corporal was one of two Marines killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee in Iraq's Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. He was assigned to the 8th Communication Battalion, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Palmer grew up in Manteca, a Central Valley city 80 miles east of San Francisco, and was a high school athlete, taking up track, wrestling and football.
After his graduation from Manteca High School in 1989, he tried out a variety of jobs. Palmer was working at a gas station and a bait shop when he enlisted the first time in 1992.
"He said, 'Dad, I'm not going anywhere, I'm not doing anything with my life,' " his father recalled. "We come from a long line of military.... All of us when we left home, we gravitated toward it."
After Palmer was honorably discharged, he settled in Mooresville, N.C., where his mother and stepfather, Peggy and Ron Emmick, had moved.
Palmer planned to work with his stepfather, who was looking for another venue for his California-based competitive racing kart business. The Emmicks returned to California, but Palmer stayed.
"North Carolina fit his personality," said his father, who lives in Manteca and works for a company that provides supportive living services to the developmentally disabled. "The whole country-boy attitude, he fit that really well."
Palmer's wife, Tanya, said he was the consummate outdoorsman who liked to camp, fish and barbecue. "He wanted to buy a lot of property in South Carolina and start a hunting lodge there for our retirement," she said.
Palmer signed up for the Marine Corps Reserves. And he continued the quest for a job that would satisfy him.
He was a manager at an equipment rental company and later took up powder coating -- a process of dry-coating a metal surface (instead of applying a liquid paint), then curing it with heat.
"It's beautiful when it's done right. He had a real eye for it," said his stepmother, Teri Palmer, who married his father when Charles and his younger brother, Jason, were little and has doted on them ever since.
"I guess I'm referred to as a stepmom, but it's not something I really considered. They are my boys," said Teri Palmer, who has a daughter with Chuck.
Charles Palmer lived mostly with his father and stepmother, but also spent time with his mother. "He was his mom's son and she was willing to share him -- and I was willing to share," Teri Palmer said.
Palmer met the woman he would marry at a friend's house five years ago. "That first night we just talked until the sun came up," Tanya Palmer recalled. "He looked at me and said, 'I'm committed.' I said, 'Really?' Because I had a lot of baggage. I had two kids."
But Charles Palmer bonded easily with her children, Brenden and Rebecca Whitlow, who are now 6 and 9, respectively. "They considered him their daddy," Tanya Palmer said.
Near the end of 2005, "he came home and said, 'I reenlisted,' " she said. "I said, 'Well, what do we do now?' He said, 'Well, now I guess we have to get married.' "
They did just that in January 2006. The next month, he moved to Camp Lejeune and his wife moved to her mother's home in Gastonia, N.C., to continue her job as a service agent for a regional power company and help her brother as he convalesced from an injury. She finally left her job and joined her husband at his base in November.
She said he seemed to be thriving and, even though his deployment to Iraq loomed on the horizon, he was comforted by the knowledge that she was capable on her own.
"I know how to repair my own car," she said. "He knew I would be able to handle things. And he could focus on his work."
Palmer left for Iraq in February.
Three months later, his wife was outside her home washing her car when the van bearing military officials came to deliver the sad news.
"My instant thought was, 'My house is a wreck, my husband is going to be upset....' I said, 'Whatever you're going to tell me you can tell me out back.' But they walked me inside."
Tanya Palmer, who is from Pennsylvania, consented to have her husband buried in California. "I felt it was only right because his family was there."
In addition to his wife, mother, father, brother, stepchildren and stepparents, Palmer is survived by a 15-year-old son, Charles, from a former relationship; a sister, Jeni Kopp; and his maternal grandparents, Mary and L.J. Porter.