At Renaissance fairs, Eric Holke loved playing the part of a hard-bitten mercenary. He would dress up in a breastplate and chain mail and carry a two-handed sword.
But with two overseas Army tours under his belt, Holke knew all too well the perils of real war, said his wife, Cassidhe.
For him, military service was above all a good career -- one in which he hoped to one day make lieutenant, his wife said. It was a means to homeownership and to support more children and their own little slice of the good life, she said.
That’s why Holke reenlisted with the California Army National Guard late in 2006, even though his first two tours -- in Afghanistan and Iraq -- had left him so traumatized that he moaned with nightmares.
When Holke left for a second Iraq deployment as a sergeant in March, he tried to reassure his new wife and 16-year-old stepson, Steven.
“ ‘Don’t’ worry,’ ” she recalled him saying. “ ‘We’ll buy a house when I get back; we’ll save money and we’ll have more children because Steven needs a brother or sister.’ ”
They were hopeful plans and, at times, it seemed that “everything would be complete,” she said.
But their carefully laid plans died in the war that haunted Holke’s dreams.
The 31-year-old Riverside man was killed July 15 in a noncombat-related accident in Tallil, south of Baghdad, the Department of Defense reported. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment in Fullerton.
His wife said he was returning to his base after escorting a convoy when his Humvee swerved to miss someone on the road. The vehicle overturned, killing Holke instantly, she said.
Cassidhe Holke was at a friend’s birthday party when her landlady called to say there were two uniformed military officers at her door.
She held out hope that it might just be an injury until the officers arrived at the party and pulled her aside to deliver the news. She started screaming. Her son passed out.
Eric Holke had formed a close bond with her son in the year the couple dated, she said.
“As soon as we got engaged, Steven said, ‘I want to call you Dad,’ ” Cassidhe Holke said. “Eric loved my son and my son loved him back.”
Holke was raised in Riverside and the mountain community of Crestline, where he graduated from Rim of the World High School in 1995. His father was a sheriff’s deputy and his mother did church work.
Always looking for adventure, Holke joined the California Conservation Corps, working in the woods of Northern California for two years, family members said.
After that, he became involved in the Renaissance fair circuit, dressing and acting as a 15th century German soldier. He called himself Adolf, not to honor the Third Reich dictator but to mock him, his wife said.
The couple met at a Renaissance fair in Corona in 2005 when he remarked on her hearty laugh.
Holke enlisted in the Army in 2001, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, his wife said. His experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq left him psychologically troubled and he was honorably discharged in 2005, she said.
Holke worked for a time with autistic children at the Riverside County Office of Education. But he had decided to make the military a career and worked to get himself medically cleared to reenlist with the California National Guard, his wife said.
The Guard called him up in December. She planned their wedding in four days and they exchanged vows in January.
Holke was called to serve in March and was deployed to Iraq in June.
His funeral was held July 22 at Riverside National Cemetery, where he was buried next to a sapling, his wife said.
In addition to his wife and stepson, Holke is survived by his father, Jack Holke of Las Vegas; his mother, Nancy Holscher of Lincoln, Neb.; a sister, Erin Holke of Las Vegas; and several aunts, uncles and cousins.