Army Staff Sgt. Josh Whitaker was fiercely protective of the two teenage cousins he considered little sisters. He was scandalized when the girls shopped at Victoria's Secret, and he liked to warn them over the phone from Afghanistan that he'd chase after any boys they dated.
That deep loyalty to his family and friends extended to his elite Green Beret team. Returning from a successful mission near Qalat, Afghanistan, Whitaker and the rest of his convoy were ambushed by Taliban fighters May 15 southwest of Kabul.
According to the Department of Defense, Whitaker manned a .50-caliber turret gun, killing five militants in a firefight as he provided cover for two vehicles behind him. But he was mortally wounded by a shot to the underarm that struck behind his protective vest. He had saved nine fellow soldiers' lives.
Whitaker, 23, of Long Beach, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
"He always said he wanted to make a difference," said his mother, Cathy Whitaker of Long Beach.
Joshua R. Whitaker grew up as an only child, reared by his mother and close to his uncle and aunt, Robb and Debbie Whitaker of Signal Hill.
Intensely physical, the 6-foot-1 Whitaker was often whizzing across ice or asphalt to play ice or roller hockey, tackling his buddies during a game of "mud ball" in the rain or dangling his cousins upside down through the house.
He doted on the cousins, Rachel and Laura Whitaker. And when Laura was diagnosed with diabetes at age 9, he pricked himself first to test his blood sugar -- pretending that it didn't sting -- to show her it was OK.
Whitaker also showered affection on the young daughters of his girlfriend, Star Boyd, splashing with them in North Carolina water parks on the weekends. Three-year-old Piper still cries for Whitaker some nights, Boyd said, adding, "He loved them like they were his."
At family gatherings, Rachel, 17, and Laura, now 16, couldn't wait for him to spice things up. His mischievous grin meant trouble: Whitaker's family laughed as they remembered his imitations of Grandma Charlene, or how he playfully launched her wheelchair off the curb at Disneyland only to get her stuck in the tracks on Main Street.
"He liked to stir it up a little," his mother said. She once discovered Heinekens and Coronas that he and his Millikan High School buddies had buried in the backyard for illicit parties. "He had a great smile on his face."
Robb Whitaker cherishes the memory of their final trip together in the summer of 2003, right before Josh enlisted, just the two of them cruising on WaveRunners down the Colorado River. The pair ran out of gas, adrift on the water. Passersby gave them a little fuel, but, as night fell and the moon rose over the river, they weren't sure they had enough for the 10-mile trip back to the boat ramp.
They decided to risk it and gunned their engines, "smiling at each other like idiots," his uncle said. They made it back to the ramp.
Whitaker decided to enlist in the Army after a few classes at Long Beach City College. "He was a fish out of water in school," his uncle said.
Once he knew what he wanted to do, Whitaker hustled to prepare for enlistment, with 5 a.m. workouts and runs up Signal Hill.
His family noticed how Army Special Forces training changed him -- how Whitaker grew more mature and confident. That calm assurance spread to his family as well.
"I just really believed he was going to be OK," his mother said. "When he told you he was going to be safe, you believed it."
Whitaker talked with Boyd of pursuing a career in private security, and his hopes of joining the Army's elite Delta Force. The two, who shared a home in Rayeford, N.C., had discussed the possibility of marrying in Costa Rica.
"He had so much determination" and so many goals, Boyd said.
Whitaker was big-hearted but tough; his Army buddies dubbed him "Iron Man," Boyd said.
He told a close friend, Matt Miller, that his deployment to Afghanistan on his birthday, March 10, was the best present he ever received.
Once, while shooting squirrels in the mountains, Whitaker accidentally blasted himself in a thumb with his BB gun but was too embarrassed to tell anyone, said Miller, who got to know him well in high school.
Fearless, Whitaker would stick up for his buddies in fights.
"He was a presence," Miller said. "That's how much he meant to people."
He and Miller planned to live next door to one another someday and start families as best friends, side by side.
Etched on Miller' bicep is a tattoo identical to Whitaker's: Latin for "Friends for life."
In addition to his mother, uncle, aunt and cousins, Whitaker is survived by his father, Frank Dougherty of El Monte; two great-uncles, Tom and Dick Whitaker; and a great-aunt, Ann Napier.