BRADENTON, Fla.—Years ago, a gray-haired minister sat a boy on his knee and shared war stories with him.
An Army veteran, John Marlow wanted to teach 8-year-old Christopher Cobb what it meant to be a soldier.
Somehow, even then, Christopher already knew.
"We were talking and I said, `Chris, I was in the U.S. Army and I tried to be a good soldier,'" recalled Marlow, now 70. "Chris looked me in the eye and said, `Well, I will be a good soldier.'"
More than a decade later, Cobb, 19, died as a U.S. Marine in combat in Iraq.
"He was very, very shy and always very serious," said Marlow, Christopher's lifelong minister. "But his eyes spoke more than his words did."
Sitting in the same church where Cobb's coffin sat in April, Marlow talked about how he'd dedicated Christopher to the church and God as a 6-month-old at Bradenton Gospel Tabernacle.
"It's a sad mixture of feelings, knowing this boy was fulfilling the duty of a soldier," Marlow said in a raspy drawl. "But at the same time, it was a sharp reminder that war is so costly—and that we'd lost someone so close to us."
Pfc. Christopher Cobb was killed April 6 in Iraq. A member of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he'd been in Iraq less than two weeks when he was killed.
Two weeks after his family buried him, Sheila Cobb got a letter from her only son.
"I am coming home alive and in one piece," Christopher wrote. "I promise you that mom."
The letter was funny and irreverent—everything you'd expect from a teenager: "I have been in Camp Victory here for two weeks. It's retarded here, boring."
"It brought the war home to me," Marlow said. "It's a tremendous sacrifice our people are making for the vision of our government. We all question the cost of war, I think."
Sometimes overwhelmed with grief, Sheila Cobb tries to focus on preserving her son's legacy.
Christopher R. Cobb was born on New Year's Day, 1985, at Sarasota Memorial Hospital to Ronald and Sheila Cobb.
He grew up in Bradenton, a community 50 miles south of Tampa teetering somewhere between being reminiscent of an old-Florida town and a growing city filled with a steady flow of tourists and Midwestern transplants. The town is anchored by juice-maker Tropicana's factory, and it's the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Christopher went to public schools and spent summer days playing with his cousins and half-sister, Kelly Krueger, now 26.
He never got to know his father, an Air Force Vietnam veteran. When Christopher was 5 months old, Ronald Cobb died from an illness caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Krueger said that while she was the type to explore the outdoors, her little brother preferred to explore through computers.
"He was always super, super quiet and shy even when he was with me," Krueger said.
After losing her husband in 1985, Sheila Cobb was left to raise Christopher alone until she met Howell Tuten, a Marine Corps veteran who began raising the boy as a loving stepfather.
Christopher led the life of a typical teen: fiddling around on his computer, hanging out with friends, working part time at a local nursing home and Walgreen's, and playing in his high school orchestra.
Richard Jorgensen taught Christopher's orchestra class for three of the four years that Christopher was at Bayshore High School.
"He was a quiet kid in the back of the class. He was dependable, consistent," Jorgensen said. "He would come in early and help get things ready—move the chairs in place and get the room ready—and stayed late to help clean up, too. He was always quiet, but doing his part for the whole."
He was an 11th-grader at Bayshore when he asked his mom to sign a form so he could enlist in the Marines' delayed-entry program.
"He wanted to join because his friends were joining," Sheila Cobb said. "He wanted to travel and get out of Bradenton. He wanted to better himself."
When Christopher came back to Bradenton, something inside him had changed.
"When he came back last fall, he came back in wearing his uniform. He was so proud. He had just finished basic. He seemed more relaxed," Jorgensen said. "I think the Marines gave him a sense of identity. A sense of pride that he didn't seem to have before."
It hurts Kaylee Morris, his 18-year-old cousin, to realize that he never got to read the four-page letter or snack on the beef jerky she mailed to him.
"It's been hard. Like when I got back the last package that I sent him," Morris said. "I mean I knew it was coming back, but I didn't expect it so soon. I got home from work and I just saw it there on my doorstep and started crying. It's the little things like that that make it hard."
"You have to believe that no life is given in vain," said Marlow, the minister. "Otherwise you have no reasoning for the insanity of war."
(Kaminski reports for the Bradenton Herald.)