IMPERIAL, Calif.—Marcus Cherry had to practice that Marine Corps stare.
He'd stand in front of the mirror at home, jaw forward, eyes hard, holding it as long as he could before a wide grin broke across his face.
They all talk about his big, irrepressible smile. How it lit up the eager entertainer who would sing at the slightest prompt. How it won him the "cutest smile" tag in the high school yearbook. How it magnified a charm that helped him escape trouble in the classroom and dance around arguments with his fiancee.
"I'd try to pick a fight with him. He'd find a way to weasel out of it," said Shannon Severe, who'd set a Nov. 20 wedding date with Marcus.
"When Marcus came up to you and smiled, you smiled, too. You didn't have a choice," said Lisa Tabarez, the principal at Imperial High School, a 730-student school on a stucco campus near the Mexican border, 120 miles east of San Diego.
Marcus and his older brother, Andre—half black, half Latino—were young boys when their father left. Their mother, a native of Mexico, struggled in poverty. They were in and out of shelters, and they moved around a lot.
When the boys were 5 and 6 their mother, Genevieve King, met James Tyler, a Marine who became their stepfather and took them to North Carolina, where he was stationed at Camp Lejeune.
"We both decided when we were younger that we liked the Marines," said Andre Cherry, 19, a Marine lance corporal stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Tyler retired nine years ago and they moved back to California, bouncing from place to place. They settled in the Imperial Valley, a dusty, sun-baked flatland where high school graduations feature mariachi music and fireworks, and the air carries the faint, sweet stench of the beet sugar plant up the road.
Tyler and King had two children, Stephen and Monique, but the marriage failed and the couple split. The Cherry brothers found themselves taking care of the kids, cleaning and cooking while their mother trained and worked as a corrections officer at Centinela, one of two nearby state prisons.
They kept their troubles private.
"We were able to show the world it was OK, and let it out to each other," Andre Cherry said. "Me and him just had each other."
The brothers went to a youth group at Christ Community Church in nearby El Centro, where a friend in the group, Jimmy Holmes, wrote Christian rap songs.
They sang on the Calico Stage at the Imperial Valley fairgrounds, at a center for troubled teens, at Youth for Christ events and church sleepovers, where they rapped about sexual purity and finding Jesus.
Marcus also sang on the "DJ Phat Friday" hip-hop show on local youth radio.
"Young brothers, keep your head up," he wrote.
"When your parents ain't there and the world got you fed up
"You say it's hard and it's a struggle
"But God said all things through him are possible."
Marcus was often the center of attention at summer camp or in the church youth group, said James Whitehead, the youth pastor at Christ Community Church. "He could relate to the pain most kids are going through now, whether raised by single parents or not having funds, or just growing up in these times."
At school, Marcus and Andre played running back for the Imperial High Tigers, sometimes in the same backfield. Marcus wore his letter jacket proudly.
"Cherry on the carry," the announcer would intone.
Before Andre joined the Marines, Marcus had his mind set on studying studio engineering at Washington State University, aiming at a future in entertainment. Andre joined in 2002. Then Marcus enlisted, skipping out on his high school graduation to go to boot camp.
Mike Swearingen, his former football coach, once asked Marcus why he joined up.
"He says, `(Andre's) in there, I'm going, coach,'" said Swearingen. "They were inseparable, I mean true brothers. They looked out for each other."
In a letter to his mother, one of his superiors described Marcus as a "fast-burner" who could have risen in the ranks. 2nd Lt. V.S. Valdes praised his dedication and more.
"Whenever we would run platoon or squad PT (physical training), he would get out to the side of the formation and just sing. His singing was beautiful, and it motivated those Marines in the formation to step a little smarter and to hold their heads just a little higher," Valdes wrote. " ... He never complained, did things at one hundred percent and always had an infectious smile on his face."
On April 3, Andre was in Ramadi to pick up some armor-plated doors and heard someone calling his first name. It was his brother. They got to visit for a few hours.
"He seemed like the same person. He hadn't changed at all. Still smiling, still joking," Andre said. "He was all about the Marine Corps.
"That's all we talked about out there. He was proud. ... When we were in Iraq, there was never a day we doubted our being out there."
In a picture, the two brothers are standing that day in pale fatigues, weapons strapped across their backs. Marcus is the one with the bill of his cap over his eyes, his hands on his hips and a big grin on his face.
Three days later, Lance Cpl. Marcus Miguel Cherry was killed at age 18. His brother escorted his body home.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+echo
McClatchy Newspapers 2007