BEAR, Del.—Nearly six years ago, Tony Roberts stood over his father's casket in a Maryland funeral home, a boy of 13 staring silently at the man he had adored.
It was November 1998, shortly before Tony would say he wanted to join the military, like his dad.
In the mortuary, Tony surprised his sister by asking her and his mother to leave him alone with the body.
The women hesitated. The boy's pain was palpable. Tony had watched his dad die from heart failure, then he'd had begun vomiting from an unexplained illness. He eventually needed grief counseling.
"They were buddies," said Angela, Tony's older sister, recalling that Tony sat alone with his dad for a long time. "I guess he was talking to him."
Those wrenching days seemed to set a trajectory for Tony, said relatives, friends and teachers near his home in Bear, a small town 50 miles south of Philadelphia.
Somewhere among the teenager's rap music "battles" with friends, clothes-shopping in Philadelphia and affinity for war movies, Anthony Paul Roberts had stepped into his father's shoes.
"He felt he became the man of the house," said Amanda Jones, 18, Tony's girlfriend.
"He definitely was protective of his mother," said Malcolm Dunne, 21, a friend and onetime fellow ROTC cadet. "He was basically a mama's boy, except that Tony was more protective of her than she was of him."
Emma Roberts used to marvel at her toddler, with his irrepressible friendliness and seemingly advanced reading skills. In second grade, he astonished her by bringing a book on ancient civilizations home from the library.
"He read it!" she said.
The family was living in Randallstown, Md.—Tony's father, William, was a mechanic, and Emma was an auditor—when the inevitable happened to Tony: girls.
"They just started calling. How'd they get our number?" Emma Roberts said quizzically. The family phone was unlisted.
With his disarming smile and sturdy build, Tony Roberts was undeniably a "pretty boy," said his friend Dion Dickerson, 16.
"He had the ladies after him all the time," said Maj. Daniel Alvarez, an ROTC teacher at Middletown High School, where Tony got his start in the military.
Tony began racking up honors in karate, baseball, community volunteer service for the elderly, even summer-reading contests. Although his father was ill with kidney disease, the two became "like this," Emma Roberts said, crossing her fingers.
Then one Sunday at home, William E. Roberts, 51, a Navy enlisted man in the early 1960s, suffered heart failure. Tony rode with his father to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Enveloped by grief and packing for a series of moves to Philadelphia, then Delaware, Tony wrote a poem that was discovered only after he, too, was dead.
"I thought my father was invincible
I didn't think he could or would die
All I can do is cry
One thing I really hate
Is I never got to say goodbye
He once told me you cannot succeed unless you try
Being without him
Is like a car with no rims
A sky with no clouds
Or a gun with no rounds."
Finally settling with his mother in a secluded suburban development near Middletown, Del., Tony quickly assembled a stable of friends and earned a reputation for maturity beyond his years, natty dressing, prowess at the PlayStation and doting on his mom.
"I would have to tell him he was still a child," Emma Roberts said. "I would never take away his childhood."
He signed up for the Air Force ROTC class in high school, reputed to be an "easy A," friends said. But his teachers quickly saw his ambition for military service beyond ROTC, at one point pushing him to consider college instead.
"The main thing drawing people into the military now is they're looking for an education, for benefits," said ROTC Chief Master Sgt. Michael Conway. "But Tony never talked about it."
Emma also pushed Tony to consider college. But more schooling was the last thing on the mind of a boy more interested in girls, movies and adventure.
Amanda, his on-again, off-again flame, was planning to join the Air Force herself after graduation. For Tony, the Marines beckoned with promises of travel, experience and pride—perhaps that of a departed father.
"If he hadn't died? I wonder if Tony would've joined," his mother said.
At 17, Tony needed her consent to enlist. Emma initially refused, relenting only after a Marine recruiter came with Tony to her house to talk.
"I definitely feel responsible," Emma said, "but he was just so enthused with becoming a Marine. So I supported it. ... I've always been proud of him."
Tony wrote often to his mother and girlfriend while at basic training, then at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and finally in Iraq, once confessing to Amanda that he didn't fear going to war, but leaving his mother alone.
"He was always worried about your welfare more than his own," Lt. Thomas Cogan IV, his commander in his platoon in Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, wrote Emma Roberts in a condolence note. It was "a trait he also carried into the fight in regards to the men he fought with."
Amanda said Tony talked in his letters about marrying her someday. "He said other girls broke up with guys when they were deploying. I was always going to wait."
The knock on the door came late on Tuesday, April 13, after Emma had begun painting the interior of her house out of nervous energy. She peeked out the front window and saw the outline of a Marine officer's hat.
"I tried to run away. I ran into the family room, and they rang again," Emma said, tears streaming.
Months later, the questions still nagged. "What happened? That's what I want to know," she said.
Her son, who died April 6 at age 18 and was buried with military honors in Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery just down the road from his home, was identified by a tattoo he'd recently gotten etched into his right forearm.
It was a simple design declaring "Rest in Peace" over the initials "W.E.R."—William Edward Roberts, his father.