As a child, Michael Hinkle loved tinkering with computers.
On visits to the Midwest to see his mother and stepfather, the boy would promise to make their computers work faster. It was only after he left for home in Southern California that the couple would discover that nothing worked.
"Everywhere he went, he left a trail of broken computers behind him," his stepfather Bob Jakowinicz said with a laugh.
But as Hinkle grew, so did his talent with computers.
After high school, he joined the Air Force and was assigned to his unit's Internet and computer networks, winning achievement medals for his work. He told friends and family that his military experience would help him start a career in the computer industry some day.
"As an adult, he was fantastic on a computer," said Jakowinicz, who lives in Livonia, Mich.
On March 16, Senior Airman Michael J. Hinkle II, 24, was found unresponsive in his residence while deployed in Southwest Asia with the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, according to an Air Force statement. The cause of death is under investigation. Military officials said they could not specify where Hinkle was deployed, but family members said he was in Kuwait.
Hinkle was born Nov. 24, 1986, in Valparaiso, Ind. His parents divorced while his father was in the Air Force, and he and his younger brother, Brandon, moved to Southern California when their dad was transferred to March Air Force Base.
Their father remarried, and the family settled in Ontario before moving to Corona in 2002. Hinkle also spent vacations in Indiana — and later Michigan — visiting his mother, who also remarried.
Hinkle was a laid-back but popular teenager, particularly with girls. At home, he could be found playing video games, practicing his guitar or tinkering with computers in a corner of the family room.
"He was half geek, half cool," said his father, Michael Hinkle, a special education teacher, who lives in Corona. "He had just a way of lighting up the room."
His son preferred a variety of sports to focusing on one and tried his hand at baseball, football, track and field, swimming and wrestling.
"Anything he wanted to do, he would be the best at," said Jeremy Gauntt, a friend and wrestling teammate. "Nobody disliked him, but a lot of people were jealous of him."
Hinkle taught himself to play the guitar and joined the youth worship band at Turning Point Church, a nondenominational Christian church then based in Chino. His faith played a central role in his teenage years.
"He would preach and he would talk a lot about his faith at school and with friends," said Chris Guth, a high school friend who played in the same church band. "He was very outspoken about it."
Hinkle was a standout in computer classes and put his knowledge to work, building a computer for Guth's family from scratch.
In December 2005, after graduation from Chino High School, he joined the Air Force, becoming a cyber transport systems journeyman. He was first stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and then, from November 2008, at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
The Air Force was a good fit. Hinkle told friends and family that he enjoyed the work and felt proud to serve his country. He reenlisted a year early.
At Ellsworth, he played on the squadron's softball team and volunteered at a local Habitat for Humanity, helping renovate homes for the needy. At work, he built a secure computer network used by pilots, flight crews and others to communicate.
"We knew if he called back for help we were in trouble," said Staff Sgt. Abigail Philbrick, his supervisor on the base.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hinkle was deployed to Kuwait. His mother, Teena Jakowinicz, said her son phoned regularly.
"He was always upbeat about his job," she said. "He always made a point to tell me he loved me."
Hinkle is survived by his brother, Brandon, 20; his father, stepmother, Cynna Hinkle, and her children, Janae, 26, and Jonathan, 22; and his mother, stepfather and their children, Laikyn, 17, Lexy, 15, and Emma, 12.