Marine Cpl. Kevin A. Cueto, 23, San Jose; killed by roadside bomb

Kevin Alexander Cueto had an infectious smile and a love of life that buoyed the spirits of countless friends and fellow Marines. From childhood, the Bay Area native also seemed to know exactly what he wanted, family and friends said. A military career became his unshakable goal.

That career was cut short June 22 when a roadside bomb exploded near him while he was on foot patrol in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. He was 23.

Cpl. Cueto, a rifleman, was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Cueto was born in Santa Clara, Calif., on an Easter Sunday, earning him the nickname “The Rabbit” from an uncle. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he and his younger brother soon moved with their mother to Okmulgee, Okla.

A “GI Joe” ornament for their Christmas tree was an early clue to his passion, as was his love of “shoot ‘em up” video games, said his father, Phillip Cueto, 54, of San Jose.

By his sophomore year in high school, Cueto had returned to live with his dad, attending Westmont High School in Campbell, Calif., and participating in its Junior ROTC program. He was drawn to military history and the themes of duty and right and wrong that the program reinforced, his father recalled.

Stocky and strong, Cueto was a linebacker on the school’s championship football team, was a member of the wrestling team and also was involved in the debate team.

“He wasn’t the star on the [football] team, but he was a contributor,” said former football coach Tony Santos, a former Marine who supported Cueto’s decision to enlist in 2005 as he was finishing high school.

“He was the guy who would volunteer to go on the kickoff team, to do things that weren’t always popular or pretty,” Santos said. “He’d do it because he knew it had to be done.”

Cueto, a San Jose resident, was close to a large circle of cousins. He loved music, including hip-hop, country and opera. He honed his singing skills at a local karaoke restaurant and cracked his friends up with his rendition of the “Carlton Dance,” made famous on the TV sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

He could chug through four gallons of milk in a week, and a friend noted in a Facebook tribute that Cueto had downed 13 double cheeseburgers in one sitting. As a last hurrah before boot camp, he shaved his hair into a checkerboard pattern.

He also was an independent thinker. Raised Catholic, Cueto attended a Baptist church in Oklahoma and later was baptized in the faith. He spoke up bluntly, whether defending a bullied schoolmate or when bravely sporting a bag that some friends said looked a lot like a purse. He and his dad enjoyed long philosophical talks.

“If he didn’t like something, he wouldn’t do it,” said his father, a facilities supervisor at General Dynamics Corp.

The reverse also was true. Cueto’s father and mother, Kelley Greenhaw, had long talks with him about the risks of war. But when the determined son pointed out that he soon would turn 18 and no longer need their permission to enlist, Phillip Cueto said he called his son’s mother and said, “All we can do is support his choices and try to keep him out of his harm’s way.”

When he visited his son during training in Washington state, he discovered an evolving young man, patient and authoritative with junior recruits, adding, “I could see the maturity.”

Cueto returned from a 2005 stint in Iraq “subdued,” although he kept details of his time there from his family to save them from worry.

In December, Cueto met Alexandria Carvalho, a Marine reservist from Santa Clara with a smile as big as his, at the karaoke restaurant where his cousin worked. The two spoke of spending their lives together. He was her “Bubby,” and she was his “lil Allygirl.”

He pestered an artist friend for a rendition of the couple kissing, and the sweet sketch now hangs on Carvalho’s wall. Last spring, Cueto deployed to Afghanistan.

“He loved being a Marine,” Phillip Cueto said, recalling his son’s occasional phone calls. “He said, ‘I was supposed to be here. This is what I was meant to do.’ He was even talking about extending.”

A week before Cueto died, he lost his first teammate when their convoy struck an explosive device and was ambushed, he told his father in an e-mail. Days later, he said, “We’re gearing up and getting new vehicles. We’re going back to the same place.”

In a Facebook note on Father’s Day, June 20, Cueto promised he’d be sitting next to his dad in 2011 at a San Francisco Giants game. He was killed two days later.

Fellow Marine Sean Legaard, who put together a video celebrating the life of “The Biggest Little Guy,” called Cueto “one damn good Marine and best friend.” Another remembered his frequent refrain, that “to pass away in combat with his brothers was the best death anyone could ever have and the most honorable.”

His family takes some solace in that.

“Sometimes you have regrets about things you didn’t do or things that weren’t said,” Cueto’s father said. “I don’t have that with him. We both had a lot of respect for each other. That’s what I’ll remember most.”

Cueto was buried with full military honors at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Los Altos, Calif., near four generations of his family. In addition to his parents, he is survived by a brother, Timothy Cueto,19; his grandparents, JoAnn Walker, Bob Walker, Steve Anderson and Cindy Anderson; and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.