Ten days ago, California National Guard Lt. Andre Tyson was leading a patrol in the canal-veined farmlands outside Balad, Iraq, when his conversation with an accompanying reporter was interrupted by the crack of a distant gunshot.
"A single shot doesn't worry us much," Tyson calmly reassured the reporter. "We worry when there is a series of shots."
On Tuesday, Tyson, of Riverside, and National Guard Spc. Patrick McCaffrey, of Tracy, Calif., both 34, were ambushed and killed in a barrage of gunfire from Iraqi insurgents during a midday patrol in the same area, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. Both men served with the Santa Rosa-based 579th Engineer Battalion, but had been converted recently to infantry soldiers.
The deaths brought the toll of California Guard casualties to seven killed in the yearlong U.S. occupation of Iraq. Nationally, they illustrate a trend in which an increasing number of casualties is being borne by National Guard and reserves rotated into Iraq in recent months to replace weary regular Army and Marine units.
During the first 22 days of June, Defense Department records show, 11 National Guard and five reserve soldiers were killed in action, compared with five regular Army troops and eight Marines. "Citizen soldiers" from the National Guard and reserves make up nearly half of the 150,000 U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq.
The families of the two slain California soldiers, one from Southern California and the other from a Bay Area suburb, mourned their losses in different ways, reflecting the deep divisions among Americans regarding the Iraq conflict.
Short and muscular, the unmarried Tyson lived in Riverside and was an assistant manager at a Glendale Costco before being called for active duty last fall.
Gathered Wednesday in the Long Beach apartment of Tyson's mother, Renee, family members remembered him as a dependable, athletic man who exuded confidence in everything he attempted.
"He was one of these people who commanded respect. People looked up to him," said brother-in-law Luis McDonald.
McDonald said Tyson, who had no children of his own, could always be counted on to baby-sit his young nieces and nephews.
In Iraq, colleagues described Tyson as an able soldier who was enthusiastic about his work.
"He's the ultimate wing man," said another lieutenant who knew Tyson in California.
Tyson's easy manner with people was evident during an early morning patrol before he was killed, when his 2nd Platoon set out to meet with locals who lived in the vast farmlands surrounding the U.S. Anaconda base outside Balad.
As the platoon threaded its Humvees down narrow dirt paths bordering an intricate network of canals, the acrid smell of mud bricks being baked in clay ovens wafted across grape, watermelon and cucumber fields that bore a striking resemblance to the Central Valley.
Tyson said that when he envisioned Iraq before his arrival, he had never pictured verdant farmlands. He said he was also surprised by the hospitality of local Iraqis.
"This is kind of what our day is like. We'll stop and chitchat with folks," Tyson said. "They'll invite you in and give you chai [Iraqi tea] and feed you bread. The bread they make is almost like homemade tortillas and it's pretty good. They also make this tea with fresh milk called halab. That's really good too."
When patrolling the towns and farmlands surrounding Anaconda, Tyson said, it was his unit's job to gather intelligence on insurgents who used the fields to launch mortar and rocket attacks on the base.
As roosters crowed and dogs barked one morning, Tyson pointed out a group of women carrying containers of water from the fetid canals on their heads.
"It's a pretty simple life for these folks," Tyson said. "The weather reaches 110 or 112 degrees and they sleep on the roof because it's cooler. It's either low class or upper class in these areas. There's not too much in between."
Tyson, a graduate of Santa Maria High School on California's Central Coast, is also survived by his father, Lee Tyson, four sisters and one brother.
"He loved the military," said his cousin Sigmund Crews. "All of his e-mails spoke positively about his experiences in Iraq."
On the other hand, in Tracy, a Bay Area bedroom community on the edge of the Central Valley, the mother of slain soldier McCaffrey spoke of her son as someone whose initial enthusiasm over the mission in Iraq evolved into extreme disillusionment.
At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, McCaffrey, a married father of two children, ages 9 and 3, was a manager with a Silicon Valley collision repair company. Overcome with the desire to do something for his country, McCaffrey, who grew up in Sunnyvale, west of San Jose, enlisted in the National Guard.
"He wanted to make a difference," his mother, Nadia, said. But after he arrived in Iraq this spring, she said, McCaffrey quickly began to question the U.S. mission there.
"He was overwhelmed by the hatred there for Americans and Europeans," his mother said. "He was so ashamed by the prisoner abuse scandal. He even sent me an e-mail to tell me that not all the soldiers were like that. He said we had no business in Iraq and should not be there. Even so, he wanted to be a good soldier."
McCaffrey was her only child. "He was all I had for many years until my grandchildren came."
Nadia McCaffrey said she learned of his death on Tuesday in Palm Springs, where she was counseling a dying friend. She has spent years as a counselor to the dying and operates several Bay Area nonprofit groups dedicated to this work. On Wednesday, her website, http://www.angelstaff.org , carried a tribute to her own son.
"I know it's ironical," she said between sobs, "usually I'm the one who is reassuring others. I just can't comprehend what has happened."
In addition to his mother and his children, McCaffrey is survived by his wife, Silvia, and his father, Bob McCaffrey.
The Los Angeles Times is following Southern California National Guard troops during their dangerous mission in Iraq. For more, go to latimes.com/guardgoes