When Michael "Paul" Bridges tried to follow in his father's footsteps and enlist in the Army in December 2001, he was rejected. At 5 feet 11, he weighed 296 pounds.
"I'm a lot shorter and a lot fatter than I thought I was," he told his dad, jokingly.
Bridges was so determined to get into the Army that he started working out and eating more healthful foods. Eighteen months later, he was 119 pounds lighter, weighing in at 177 pounds at a Fullerton recruiting station. In May 2003, he enlisted for six years. He was sent to Iraq last December.
A private in the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas, Bridges made it just over halfway through his six-year-stint.
On Nov. 2, he died in a noncombat-related incident in Taji, north of Baghdad. An Army spokeswoman at Ft. Hood said the incident is under investigation and that no details were available.
His mother, Janice Bridges of Warm Sands Missile Range, N.M., said the Army told her that her son had been hit by "friendly fire" at his base. He had a single bullet wound in his neck, she said.
Like many others, Bridges was counting the days until the end of his one-year tour in Iraq, when he would return to the U.S., said his father, Terry Bridges of Madison, Ala.
As an infantry member, he was sent out on missions into volatile areas of the Sunni Triangle to find insurgents.
"I know that he had seen some things that really shook him up," his father said.
In his son's things, Terry Bridges found the notebook each soldier carries. Paul had jottings about soldiers' losing their limbs or being shot in the face.
His mother said he saw his commanding officer, Capt. Simon T. Cox, die in February after an explosive device detonated near his Bradley fighting vehicle. He also saw a colleague take a bullet in the head. And on Labor Day, four of his buddies were killed while on patrol.
The last time Bridges' parents heard from him was late summer, when he told them that he was being sent to Germany for treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He was to be sent back to the U.S. afterward.
When his parents, who are divorced, didn't hear from their son for several weeks, Terry Bridges said he contacted the Red Cross to find his son's whereabouts. He was told that he was back in Iraq -- with no explanation of the change in plan.
On Oct. 26, one week before he died, Bridges posted his final log on his MySpace.com blog:
"I won't be in the States until December at the soonest. Just chillax folks, I will be home when I am home, so no worries.... Everything is good, I have all of my fingers and toes, and I am in fairly good health, lol. I gotta go, but I love you all."
Before trying to enlist, Bridges had attended the University of Alabama at Huntsville, but dropped out after one semester, telling his father that he wasn't ready.
His favorite school years were at Oxford High School in Oxford, Ala., where he played trombone in the marching band. He moved with his father -- who works for the Boeing Co. -- to Placentia in early 2003.
Bridges had wanted to join the Army since he was a child growing up in Alabama. He grew up with military leanings: His father, who served in the infantry for seven years, is a military subcontractor
"He always wanted to dress up like a soldier, play with a gun and be a soldier," said his mother, who recalls him playing for hours with his dozens of containers of green plastic soldiers and GI Joes. As a soldier, he named all his guns.
As tough as he was, Bridges would tenderly open the car door and help his step-grandmother into it. He asked his mother to send him box after box of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kat bars -- to hand out to Iraqi children.
As much as he loved the military, Bridges had had enough of Iraq. "He'd just say, 'Mom, this is not a good place,' " his mother said. " 'I'm ready to come home. You don't know who the friend or foe is here.' "
Bridges had finally "seen the light" about getting a college education, as his parents had before they started military-related careers: His mother works as a computer specialist testing weapons systems and his father works as a supply specialist helping build them.
"This boy had plans, he was coming home, he had his bills paid, and he was going to get out of the service and go back to school," his mother said. "He'd even called his grandmother, who he called Groovy Granny', and said he wanted to take her out for a beer. He wanted chicken and dumplings and turnip greens for Christmas dinner."
In addition to his parents, Bridges is survived by two brothers, Jason, 19, and Zachary, 16; his stepmother, Sherryl Marsh; a stepbrother, Brenten Jones; his maternal grandparents, JC and Lillie Peeks; and his step-grandmother, Nan Marsh.