GLOUCESTER—As a child, Mason Lewis spent playtime running around the fields and trees of his home in the Woods Cross Road community of Gloucester County pretending to be under siege.
In the mind of Lisa and Jeff Lewis' youngest son, sticks were swords and harmless plastic pistols were the weapon of choice.
"We always knew he would go into the military," Lisa Lewis said Monday, sitting in the kitchen of Mason's childhood home surrounded by fresh flowers and hot meals delivered by friends and neighbors.
And he did.
Shortly after Mason turned 21, following a short stint in the National Guard and "hopping around trying different things out," he enlisted in the Army.
On Friday, as a five-year veteran of the service he loved, 26-year-old Sgt. Mason L. Lewis died in Iraq.
According to the Department of Defense, Mason died in a noncombat-related training accident. The cause is still under investigation.
It's not uncommon to die in a war zone and not be classified as a troop killed in action.
Of the 3,859 military members who have lost their lives in Iraq since the U.S. invaded in 2003, 713 have been nonhostile deaths.
"He's still a hero to us," Lisa Lewis said. "He died doing what he loved. He died honorably."
Mason deployed on his second tour to the war-torn country in May with the Fort Stewart, Ga.-based 26th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
The day his mother learned of Mason's death, she received his last e-mail. In it, he told her how excited he was about a new mission - training the new Iraqi military troops. The training would take him out of Baghdad and off to a remote base where soldiers ate pre-packaged meals and relied on baby wipes to shower.
It was Soldiering 101. Mason loved it and was proud to pass off the skills he'd learned.
On Friday, his mother said the Army told her, Mason was on the roof of a building preparing to train the Iraqi troops when he lost his footing and fell to the ground.
"A medic tried to revive him," she said. "It was already too late."
It wasn't too late for Mason to leave a lasting impression.
Tattooed on his arm was the phrase: "An American's freedom is a soldier's sacrifice."
Each time he pulled on his uniform - which he was always proud to show off, his mother said - he thought about what those words meant and the responsibility he took on as a U.S. soldier.
Mason left for his first deployment to Iraq with predetermined feelings about the people there, Lewis said.
He came home with a better understanding of their culture, and the pride of knowing he taught a couple of Iraqi men how to make Virginia's famed iced tea.
During this second deployment, given that he had greater interaction with Iraqis, Mason tried to "adopt" as many children as possible.
"He was always asking me to send him toys to give away," Lewis said. "That was Mason, always thinking of others. He had a heart of gold."
Two days before he died, his mother wrote Mason and said, "thank you for being my son and loving us."
Mason's response, while full of mutual love for his family, included a line that said he "had no regrets" and was thankful to have the life he did.
On Thanksgiving later this week, Lewis will gather with family for the annual feast. She doesn't want to think about the holiday, but knows Mason would have never missed a chance to see family.
Trying to celebrate will be a way to honor him and to express her own gratitude.
"I'm thankful, if he had to go, that he go the way he did rather than be shot up or blown up," she said. "They tell me his body is still intact. I will be able to hold my son again."