As a boy, Ray Spencer donned his Army get-up each Halloween and tore through boxes of toy infantrymen each Christmas. He was even born on an Army base -- Ft. Bragg, N.C. Each morning as his dad left for work the boy bounded onto the porch and saluted.
Once he grew up, and the Iraq war had stretched on for years, he decided to enlist, telling his mother, once an Army medic, and his father, a former Army paratrooper, that the Army was "in his blood." They tried to sway him to stay put, but Spencer was unyielding, so his family, which had moved to the Sacramento suburbs, threw him a party in October before he was deployed to Iraq.
He had planned to come home this month for his sister's birthday, to camp near Lake Tahoe and see the movie "Transformers."
On June 21, however, Raymond N. Spencer Jr., 23, of Carmichael, Calif., was killed in Baghdad when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device and small-arms fire.
His mother, Laura Spencer, was told that just before he died, her son told his fellow soldiers that he wanted to go home.
Spencer loved ice hockey, football and making people laugh; the movies "Top Gun" and "Finding Nemo"; country and rock music; and dogs -- he had befriended a mutt in Iraq and hoped to bring it home.
Spencer was buried in Long Island, N.Y., near a tree as he had asked, with the ashes of his golden retriever, Maverick.
Born Nov. 9, 1983, Spencer was a brown-eyed, apple-cheeked boy who exuded the kind of warmth that charmed strangers, to whom he often announced: "I'm Raymond Nigel Spencer Jr. and I'm from California."
He and his sister, Victoria, whiled away summers on Long Island, where their mother's family lives, and school months in Northern California. Their parents had divorced when they were young. Their father, Raymond Spencer Sr., and his wife, Sylvia, live in Colfax, Calif.
His sister, just a year younger, trailed her athletic brother to football fields and ice rinks. She recalled being about 13 and sitting behind him and his buddies at the rink, listening to her favorite tape of Celtic songs. Her Walkman began chewing up the tape, and her brother came over to help. It was a tiny moment, but poignant -- she never forgot that the brother she so revered could have ignored her but didn't.
A goalie for numerous teams, Spencer admired Patrick Roy, the superstar goalie of his beloved Colorado Avalanche, and coached his own horde of 4- and 5-year-olds, who invited him to their birthday parties. Hockey so dominated his teen years that one of his memorials was held at Skatetown in Roseville, Calif., where his jersey, No. 33, is being displayed.
One of his coaches, Anthony Osburn, told mourners about a playoff game in Fresno that had dissolved into a boxing match. The other team's goalie tried to clock Spencer, then 16, but "the next thing you saw was Ray sitting on him with a big smile [and] his hand in the air like he was riding a wild bronco." Spencer didn't want to scrap, he said, because his opponents were "not as big as he was and it would not have been fair."
Spencer had once hoped to play in the National Hockey League but, at 5 feet 10, he wasn't quite tall enough for the pros, his mother said, and he considered another career: firefighting.
The profession clicked with Spencer's daredevil streak -- he scuba-dived and had taken flying lessons -- and appealed to his compassion. Still, when his mother asked whether he was thrilled to turn 18, he went for the punch line: "No, Mom. Now I have to learn the word 'responsibility.' "
Spencer was laying the groundwork, though. Taking fire science classes at American River College in Sacramento. Toiling at an antique store in Roseville. Spencer, his mother said, blew through more money than he made on swords, model airplanes and furniture for his sister.
Meanwhile, the war in Iraq weighed on him and he wanted to help. "It's in my blood," he told his parents, who reminded him that firefighters serve their country too. But he didn't waver, even when Army officials initially rejected him because as a child he had asthma. He endured lung tests to prove his fitness to serve.
So, in November, he headed to Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Bliss, Texas. On his MySpace.com page, this was how he introduced himself:
"Hey! The name is Ray and im in the US army as of right now. Im a down to earth guy who enjoys life and takes things as the come. I like to meet new people because you can learn from others and some times you make life long friends ..."
His family showered him with Sour Gummi Worms, Tootsie Rolls, beef jerky and all the DVDs they could pack. He called, e-mailed, cracked jokes and wrote back to children who had sent him letters.
Spencer didn't like the smell of Iraq -- like burning trash, he told his father -- or the milk or the scorching heat. He respected the Iraqis who patrolled alongside the Americans.
At one point, his father said, Spencer injured his shoulder while changing a tire -- but refused to slog away at a desk. He could have visited California in the spring, but wanted to save his trip for this month, when his sister turned 22. His mother now clings to memories of that last party in October, before her son walked into war.
She had gussied up the ground floor of their home for Halloween; the kitchen as if for Thanksgiving; the second floor as for Christmas. Spencer was showered with birthday and Christmas gifts. Most everyone was costumed, including Pfc. Raymond N. Spencer Jr., who attended, as always, as a soldier.
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