For a man who never spoke of joining the Army, a soldier's life came naturally to Alejandro Dominguez.
He spent hours poring over his tank manual. He quit his favorite pastime of racing all-terrain vehicles in the desert because he did not want to get hurt. And when formal occasions called for shiny shoes and a full dress uniform, the stylish 24-year-old would say with pride, "Look at me, Mom."
"I would tell him, 'You look very handsome, my boy,' " said his mother, Elia Dominguez.
It was a passion Dominguez's family respected, albeit reluctantly. They recognized that it made the husband and father of two from San Diego mature and prompted him to map out his future -- a home, more children and a lifetime career in the Army.
Those plans ended June 25 when Sgt. Alejandro Dominguez was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Mosul, Iraq, north of Baghdad. Also killed were Army Spc. Joel Taylor, 20, of Pinetown, N.C., and Army Spc. James Yohn, 25, of Highspire, Pa. All three were assigned to the 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Ft. Hood, Texas.
At the family home in San Diego, Dominguez's father, Antonio, said he still feels his only son's presence.
The two men would often nudge the women out of the kitchen so they could make ribs, shrimp and salads -- usually with a bit too much garlic, as Dominguez preferred. Fishing trips to La Paz, Mexico, where Dominguez was born, were common.
"We'd come back with coolers packed with fish to give to family and neighbors," Antonio Dominguez said.
It is not clear to his parents why their son chose to enlist in the Army.
His mother said he came home from Southwest High School one day and announced that he had signed up. He was still 17, and when two Army representatives showed up at her door seeking her signature to allow him to attend basic training, she said she refused, hoping her son would change his mind.
Her rejection would only push back her son's decision a few months. His enlistment became official on his 18th birthday, which happened to fall on Sept. 11, 2001.
"He would say, 'If I have to go to Iraq, I will go,' " Elia Dominguez said, recalling her son's pride and persistence. "Everything became Army, Army, Army."
The two spoke a day before he died.
Dominguez, or "Flaco" as his mother called him for his thin build, told her he had not slept in 22 hours; he was tired and would see her soon. He was scheduled to take a home leave this month.
Dominguez and his wife, Brenda, 24, planned to visit Disney World while he was home. They also wanted to buy a home in Killeen, Texas, where he was stationed. The couple have a 1- 1/2 -year-old daughter, Alexa. Dominguez also has a son, Isaijah Ortiz, 3, from a previous relationship.
"After we moved to Texas, he was excited that we were out here on our own," his wife said. "He always made time to play with the kids."
On the phone from Iraq, Dominguez would speak with enthusiasm about his missions. He said that just being on guard duty bored him.
"He liked being in the middle of the action," his wife said. "I was always petrified."
The blaring hip-hop she once heard -- and was never fond of -- from the garage on mornings when Dominguez was home will be no more, but she and the children will remember him every day, she said, with his photos and for the sacrifice he made.
Dominguez's father and the family will think of him, and probably laugh out loud, come New Year's Day.
That day, everyone in the family would gather and "he would say to the family, 'I'm going to dance like they do in the military.' And then he would march up and down like a soldier and we would all crack up," his father said. "We will always remember Alejandro that way."