Years before he was sent off to fight -- and die -- in a real war, Rudy Salcido waged makebelieve battles in the wilds of Azusa Canyon.
With his kid sister in tow, the adventurous La Puente teenager forded streams, explored caves and even plastered his body with mud, camouflaging himself against imaginary enemies.
"Sometimes we'd spend the night out there," said his sister Monica, now 30. "For as long as I can remember, a soldier is what he wanted to be."
For a time, it seemed that Salcido's asthma would block that life path. Eventually, though, the breathing woes eased and he enlisted in the Army, serving as an ammunition specialist from 2000 to 2005.
After completing active duty, he joined the California Army National Guard and volunteered for duty in Iraq in July. Last month, his years of decorated service ended in Baghdad, where he was killed by a roadside bomb.
Among those devastated by his death is his wife, Jennifer, whom Salcido called "Lady J." Longtime sweethearts, the couple wed three days before Salcido was deployed. The honeymoon was brief -- a quick trip to the Pala Resort and Casino near Temecula -- and included chocolate-covered strawberries and a couple's massage, his wife said.
"We only had 14 days together between April and his death," she said, "but they were the best 14 days I ever had."
Salcido, 31, was assigned to the 1114th Transportation Company in Bakersfield. On the morning of Nov. 9, he left Al Asad Air Base in a long convoy with supplies for the Marine Corps' birthday celebration at another base. Salcido sat in the passenger seat of a 10-ton cargo truck, said Sgt. 1st Class James Elstad, a casualty assistance officer.
"Rudy bore the brunt of the blast," Elstad said, "and the driver wound up with a couple scratches and a sore elbow."
Relatives say Salcido died doing what he loved -- serving his country at war. His time in Iraq marked his third tour in the Middle East, following two previous deployments to Kuwait.
"Being a soldier made him feel good, like he had a purpose," his wife said. "He loved wearing the uniform."
Maj. Kenneth Koop, who was commander of the transportation company and trained with Salcido last spring at Ft. Bliss in Texas, called him "a tremendous soldier" whose seasoning was a reassuring force for the unit's younger men.
"If you had to pick a soldier you would go to war with," Koop said, "Sgt. Salcido would be one I'd take with me any day."
Born in West Covina, Salcido was a joyful guy who made everyone laugh. He loved video games, white Russians, Texas hold 'em poker and eating "bar burgers" at Dave & Buster's restaurant at Ontario Mills Mall.
He also loved off-roading with his wife and friends in his beloved Chevrolet pickup truck.
"That truck was his baby," said his mother, Maybelle Luevano. "He put these huge tires on it and loved to drive through the mud. But he always washed it carefully when he was done."
Though he was a tough-as-nails military man, he was "a big kid at heart," his mother said. He had no use for whiners -- telling them to "buck up, soldier" -- but had a huge soft spot for his 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Gabriella.
Salcido also was a romantic. He proposed to Jennifer on the roof of his house, calling it "the closest mountain he could find." And before he left in July, he hid notes for his new bride all over her home. "He told me to be strong, and they were signed, 'Your Soldier,' " she said.
The military had a magnetic pull on Salcido, but he also yearned for the life of a family man. He enjoyed mowing the lawn, putting up Christmas lights, planting pansies. He loved celebrating with fireworks on the Fourth of July.
After Salcido completed active duty, his relatives were not surprised that he enlisted in the National Guard. Initially, he was a member of Troop A, 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry in Pomona. He also worked with the guard's recruiting office and as a volunteer providing relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
In June, he chose to transfer to the 1114th Transportation Company in order to deploy with the unit to Iraq.
"I can't stress enough how much I came to rely on him," said Koop, his commanding officer. "He had been to the desert and faced the challenges we were heading into. He shared that with the younger soldiers, and it was a tremendous help."
The recipient of 16 military awards, Salcido was promoted posthumously to sergeant first class.
In addition to his wife, daughter and mother, he is survived by his father, Peter Salcido; six brothers and sisters; and numerous other relatives.