There wasn’t anything particularly gung-ho about Army Pfc. Cameron Payne. He almost had too much individual style to be in the military.
The Corona native once grew pork chop sideburns. He briefly sported a Mohawk. He also would roll up his 1950s-style jeans at the bottom, throw on a Houndstooth cap and reach down in his lungs to sing like his beloved Tom Waits just to get a smile out of his wife, Julie.
When money started getting tight, he tried signing up for the Marine Corps but they rejected him because of a tattoo he got for Julie just under his Adam’s apple that read, “Love.”
The inscription didn’t bother the Army, which accepted him in November 2005. He was deployed to Iraq less than two years later, manning a .50-caliber machine gun atop a Humvee for a unit stationed in the thick of combat.
On June 11, an improvised explosive device exploded near his vehicle in the northern Iraq city of Balad. Payne, 22, died of his wounds shortly after.
“He wasn’t G.I. Joe,” said Payne’s mother, Denise Jackson. “It was a career choice. He joined to support his family.”
Payne had a baby girl, Annaleese, and was working two jobs, stocking shelves at Target and Kohl’s, before he enlisted.
His mother tried to persuade him to join the Los Angeles Police Department, where his uncle works, or work with her at the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But Payne said that it would take too long.
He tried to reassure his mother about his choice. Jackson is a correctional sergeant at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, and Payne and his brother kidded her that she ran her home like a prison.
“He told me, ‘Mom, if I can handle your household, I can handle anything,’ ” said Jackson, 43, who raised Payne alone.
Julie Payne said there was little anyone could do to change his plans. She was terrified of losing the man she had become smitten with the moment she saw him in an art class at Buena Vista High School in Corona.
“I just wanted to sit with him the first time I saw him,” she said.
She still hasn’t changed the cellphone voicemail greeting she used when Payne was in Iraq. It instructs him to dial two other numbers to reach her. She signs off with “Sorry, baby, I love you.”
Julie Payne said her husband identified with a subculture known as SHARP -- Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. He also fantasized about singing in a ska band.
“I just loved the way he walked and the way he talked,” said Julie Payne, 22, who married the soldier in 2005. “He was such a goofball. Every time he came home from work was a celebration. He’d dance into the room with a waddle. Sometimes he’d run into the house, jump and turn around. I’d just run up to him. We were always like newlyweds.”
Julie said Payne was the center of attention at parties. That did not change when he joined the Army. He kept his friends loose by cracking jokes that helped them get through basic training. In the pictures sent home from Iraq, Payne maintained his signature smile while holding a heavy machine gun.
But in reality, Payne was struggling through his tour, which began in February.
“He’s such a caring person, but in Iraq, he had to kill people,” Julie Payne said. “He had to protect the guys on his truck. I knew that if he had to hurt anyone, it would traumatize him. After seeing the men he killed, his first thought was how their wife and kids would never see them again.”
Payne had a brief respite from combat in May when he was sent home for two weeks to see the birth of his second daughter, Kylee. It was then that Payne’s family learned of his panic attacks and anxiety. He told a friend that he was certain he would die.
Members of Payne’s family say they’re getting by with overwhelming support from friends and co-workers who had known him since he was a boy.
Jackson’s colleagues have donated their vacation time so that she can stay home longer, and have established a memorial fund. The flags outside the prison were flown at half-staff.
Payne’s 19-year-old brother, Cody Gowens, always wears his sibling’s dog tags and is careful not to scuff the skateboarding shoes the soldier bought for him in May.
An estimated 600 people came to Payne’s June 22 funeral, which featured a horse-drawn hearse and a bagpiper. He was buried at Riverside National Cemetery a short distance from his grandfather, a Marine who was very close to Payne before he died in 1996.
“I’m so blessed they had kids,” Jackson said. “I spoke to a mom whose son was only 19 when he was killed, and he didn’t have any kids. She said her days are unbearable. When I laid him to rest I knew everything would be all right because we’ve got Cameron’s family.”