SAN DIEGO—The day he left for Iraq, they took pictures—one after another of him in his fatigues, cap shading his eyes from the sunlight, with medic's insignia pinned to his collar.
To the mother of Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Fernando Mendez-Aceves, the pictures capture the way things used to be: her beaming with pride, head leaning on his right shoulder, his younger brother at his left shoulder, Fernando's muscular arms encircling them both.
Friends teased him, but Fernando was never embarrassed to show his devotion to his family.
"The thing is, he was a very unusual son," said his mother, Sandra. "Very unusual for American standards, or even Mexican standards, because he actually liked hanging out with me and my mother."
"They would say, `Oh, mama's boy,' but he didn't care," said his younger brother, Kenneth, who's 15. "He was proud of us."
Fernando knew the importance of family from his birth, 27 years ago in Mexico City. He was the third boy his mother had in as many years, for years the youngest member of a home shared by four generations.
Fernando was smaller than his brothers, a gentle boy who brought home wounded birds. "He was always extremely sensitive. His heart was always hurting for someone," his mother said.
When she slept, he would line his GI Joe dolls alongside her bed, to protect her.
Fernando was 11 when Kenneth was born. Jealous at first, Fernando soon fell in love with his younger brother, helping to change his diapers, playing with him, caring for him to allow a rest for his mother, who had malaria.
"I would be taking care of Kenneth in the middle of the night having fever and crying and Fernando would be right there, and he would calm him down," she remembers. "I have pictures of Fernando exhausted and Kenneth like a little teddy bear on top of him, both asleep."
"He's a little like my son," Fernando once told a friend.
The boys grew up all over the world. Sandra's second husband worked in research, and the family moved from Mexico to Ghana, West Africa, then to Thailand.
Fernando became a U.S. citizen, but he embraced his Mexican heritage, wearing a custom-tailored Charro suit to graduate from high school in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Another family tradition was respect for military service, instilled in the boys since infancy, when their great-grandmother would rock them to sleep humming soldier's marches.
No one was surprised when Fernando's older brother Enrique joined the Air Force.
A year later, at 21, Fernando signed up for the Navy, choosing a career as a combat medic.
He'd been a scrawny kid. Boot camp changed that.
Fernando outran everyone, won top marks on every fitness test. His biceps grew so thick he needed to wear oversize shirts. He began training as a Navy SEAL, but was forced to quit after suffering from hypothermia.
When Fernando was assigned to Southern California, he brought his mother and Kenneth along and rented a small apartment for the three of them.
He took Kenneth everywhere. Girlfriends used to joke that his younger brother came along as a chaperone.
"You wanted to see him furious? Touch me. Touch his brothers," his mother said.
He could intimidate anyone with the mean, cold stare he developed. "If he looked at you, you would feel his eyes on you," Kenneth said. "You would feel a very heavy look."
Fernando lifted weights at work, then again in the afternoon with his brother. They hung a pull-up bar in the bathroom.
At the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, friends nicknamed him for his bulk, calling him Rocky, the Muscle Man or simply Hulk. His job was preparing troops for Iraq, but he volunteered to go himself, not wanting to waste his combat training.
Fernando left on Feb. 16.
"You have no idea how much I miss you," he wrote two days later. "I hope these seven months pass very soon so we can see each other again."
Snapshots taken in Iraq showed that Doc Mendez—as he was known to the Marines of Echo Company—hadn't lost his goofy grin.
"He kind of struck me as different because you don't see a lot of smiling people around the base," his platoon leader wrote in a letter to Sandra after Fernando was killed on April 6. "He never complained at all, even if he went on missions that lasted day and night. .... I could tell he was a good man, and whoever raised him did a good job."
When his convoy was ambushed in Iraq, Fernando was seen dragging people to safety before he was killed. His mother said she knew that he must have been afraid. "He would have been a fool not to, and my son was no fool."
A candle burns continuously on the memorial altar they've built, where Fernando watches over them from a half-dozen photographs. There's a bottle of Corona, his favorite beer; a not-quite-complete deck of playing cards; a last letter from a female friend, still sealed because Fernando never had the chance to open it. Inside a plain navy blue sack is the box that contains Fernando's remains.
His mother returns, again and again, to one comforting thought: Fernando believed that all things happen for a reason, and it's not our place to question God's plan.
Kenneth honors his brother in his own way, continuing his running and weight-lifting, as Fernando would have wanted. He wears the T-shirt his brother used to wear to the gym, worn from many washings, along with a baseball cap darkened by a ring of his brother's sweat.
"I loved him so much," he said, voice not wavering. "I'm so proud of him. I'm really proud of him."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007