Army Sgt. Michael Kyle Clark put his young son and family above everything but service to his country.
Clark, 24, probably could have avoided his second tour in Iraq. Just after Thanksgiving in 2006, shortly after coming home from his first deployment, he shattered his pelvis while horsing around with buddies on his Yamaha motorcycle. "We thought we were going to lose him," recalled his wife, Nalini. "Then we thought he would never walk."
His mother saw the motorcycle injury as a ticket out of battlefield duty for her only child. "He said, 'No, mom. If something happened to one of my guys I would never forgive myself,' " said Cherie Clark, 54.
By spring 2007, he was at work at Ft. Carson, Colo., with two metal plates and 16 pins holding the bones together.
Clark -- who was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Carson -- returned to Iraq in late 2007. A fire support specialist, he helped pinpoint enemy targets.
In February 2008, two months into his second deployment, the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Clark pulled four soldiers from an armored vehicle hit by explosives -- an act that earned him a medal.
On Oct. 7, Clark was on foot patrol when he came under attack by small-arms fire in Mosul, north of Baghdad. He was shot once in the neck and killed.
"I went to school to observe him in first grade," his mother said. "He was under the desk, on the floor. He just couldn't be still for 10 seconds. He was kicked out of a couple of grammar schools by the time he was in second grade."
She decided that her son needed a change and bought an acre and a half of land in Fiddletown, off two dirt roads. The move meant that she had to commute 105 miles daily to her government accounting job in the state capital.
She said her son became an honor roll student until he tired of school and let his grades slide. He took a test to graduate from high school early and got a job at a sporting goods store, then at a water agency.
At 18, he met Nalini Nand, a high school senior from the Fiji Islands who worked at a Taco Bell. In 2003, they were married in a three-day, Hindu-themed celebration at her parents' house. "A lot of people care for each other, but those two had passion," Clark's mother said. "Not many get to have that."
Clark's wife kept him grounded, avoiding credit cards and stopping him from buying hot rods on impulse. Money was tight. He lost his job at a motorcycle shop after dropping a bike, and work on construction crews was spotty. Not long after the birth of his son Lucas, now 4, Clark joined the Army to provide for his family. "He grew up without a father," his mother said. "It was extremely important to him to be the best dad he could be."
As a soldier, Clark proved fearless, honest, generous and unafraid to speak his mind.
"He was always so motivated," said Sgt. 1st Class Edward Maldonado, who served with Clark. "You could tell it rubbed off onto other soldiers. . . . He would sort of become their role model, because no matter what the situation was, he would always make it seem like it wasn't as bad as most soldiers would see it to be."
Maldonado remembers Clark as a fun-loving warrior who shared a passion for Ford Mustangs, but stood out most for his devotion to family: "He would talk about how much he loved his wife, Nalini." And "any time you saw Sgt. Clark while off duty he had his son stuck right next to him, wherever he went," Maldonado said.
With a steady income, Clark made sure that his wife drove a new car, and she acquiesced on the Victory 8-Ball motorcycle he bought to customize and his 1986 Mustang GT project car.
On his final deployment, he kept in touch with regular e-mails, once reassuring his family by saying it had been months since he had fired his gun.
After Clark died at 24, his father, who left when he was the same age, played a final role. Bradley Clark, a pilot who works for a Defense Department contractor that brings home deceased soldiers, requested to be part of the crew that would transport his son's body.
When he brought his son back to Sacramento, news reports quoted him as saying: "I'm sad but proud and thank him for the service he's done for our country." Contacted by The Times at his Michigan home, he declined to be interviewed.
Mike Clark's wife said her husband wanted most to be a hero to their only child.
"Mike wanted to teach him how to be a boy, and do boy stuff with him," she said. "He wanted to be there for Lucas."
She now hopes to keep her husband's prized Mustang for their son. She said he is growing into an energetic boy who likes trucks and wrestling.
"He is just like his dad," she said.