Army Staff Sgt. Aracely Gonzalez-O'Malley did not have to go to Afghanistan earlier this year.
The soldier from the Imperial County town of Brawley had recently given birth to a son and could have postponed her deployment. But friends and family members said she volunteered for the tour because she wanted to deploy with her husband.
On Oct. 12, they said, Gonzalez-O'Malley experienced a brain aneurysm while serving in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the 307th Integrated Theater Signal Battalion, 516th Signal Brigade, 311th Signal Command. She died nine days later at a hospital in Homburg, Germany. She was 31.
Friends and relatives remembered her as a proud soldier, devoted wife and mother, and die-hard San Diego Chargers fan.
"She did everything for the kids," said her husband, Sgt. Ryan O'Malley, 24, of Boston. "That's the reason she joined the military. She wanted to do something to make her kids proud."
Born and reared in Brawley, a small town north of El Centro, Gonzalez-O'Malley was living with her mother and a daughter and son from a previous marriage when she enlisted in the Army in 2002 at age 23.
"She was hanging out with the wrong people," said her sister, Lizbeth Gonzalez, 37, who lives in Yuma, Ariz. "She would party too much. She was wearing my mom out."
That changed when Gonzalez-O'Malley joined the Army, her sister said. "She straightened up and got herself together and became such a different person."
She later told her family that she wanted her sons to serve too.
Trained to install and maintain cable systems, she completed short tours in Kuwait, Iraq and Djibouti before joining the 307th Signal Battalion at Ft. Shafter in Hawaii in 2006, her husband said. The couple met there and were married a year later.
Friends and colleagues described her as a strong and supportive presence in the battalion. Responsible for helping soldiers receive the training they need to advance, she encouraged them to make the most of what the Army offers.
"One of the main reasons that I made it as an NCO [noncommissioned officer] was because of her," said Sgt. Jonathan Diaz, 26, of Brooklyn, N.Y. "She touched a lot of people's lives."
Surrounded by friends, Gonzalez-O'Malley embraced life in Hawaii. "Sky diving, swimming with the sharks.... She was up for everything," her sister said. "She was just really outgoing and fun to be around."
Always the organizer, she kept a folder in which she mapped out plans for every weekend, Diaz said. "Football Sundays were always at her house," he said. "We would … have a huge barbecue."
There were frequent visits from relatives and friends.
"She introduced me and my husband," said Monica Brooks, a friend from Brawley Union High School who married one of Gonzalez-O'Malley's Army friends.
"She loved being in the Army," Brooks said. "The only thing that was hard for her was being away from her kids."
Earlier this year, Gonzalez-O'Malley made the difficult decision to leave her three children with her sister, so that she could deploy with her unit. She worried that if she postponed her departure, she would be overseas when her husband returned to Hawaii, friends and relatives said.
Gonzalez said her sister was in touch via the online phone service Skype almost every day that she was in Afghanistan, wanting to hear about the children's progress.
"We were planning all the kids' birthdays," she said.
O'Malley said the couple had two years left to serve and were making plans for life after the military. They wanted to buy a house in Yuma to be close to her family. He had already investigated a job in satellite communications and she was taking college courses to become a nutritionist.
O'Malley was in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar when his first sergeant told him about his wife's aneurysm. The Army flew him to Germany to be with her during her final days.
"She was in a medically induced coma, but I got that time to talk with her," he said. "They weren't sure how it was going to go. One day it would be good news, the next day it would be bad, until finally there was nothing else that they could do."
Gonzalez-O'Malley was buried Nov. 3 at Desert Lawn Memorial Park in Yuma. In addition to her husband and sister, she is survived by her daughter, Sidney, 13; two sons, Riley, 10, and Sean, 10 months; her mother, Juana Buzo; her father, Armando Gonzalez; two brothers, Santiago Gonzalez and Armando Gonzalez; and a stepsister, Paulette Gonzalez.