Once he turned 18, Kristopher L. Shepherd quickly made two decisions that would shape the rest of his short life.
First, he married his childhood sweetheart.
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Then, a week later, he joined the Army.
Shepherd died Friday in Baghdad when an improvised bomb detonated during clearing operations, the Department of Defense reported yesterday.
Shepherd, 26, of Woodbridge, leaves behind his wife, Ruby, and their two children, Cheyenne, 6, and Erik, 4.
Shepherd, a staff sergeant, was assigned to the 767th Ordnance Company, 63rd Ordnance Battalion, 52nd Ordnance Group at Fort McNair.
Relatives recalled a young man who took his work and his family seriously but liked to indulge in good times and a good joke.
"He was always fun to be around," said his brother-in-law, Jamie Crowell, who noted that in high school, Shepherd had taken an interest in skateboarding.
"He liked to crack jokes -- he didn't like serious moments," Ruby Shepherd, 25, said yesterday.
Ruby and he grew up in Lynchburg, Va.
"We were 12 when we met -- he lived right up the road from me, and he would ride his bike in front of my street," his wife said. "He was really sweet."
Shepherd decided to join the Army to support his family, his wife said, and he always made his family a priority.
"He was really into his family -- he was such a good father and husband," she said. He liked to wrestle with the kids and, while not spoiling them, liked to "make them happy."
Shepherd worked for a while as a tank mechanic before deciding to study bombs and how to dismantle them.
He went to Afghanistan in July 2003 and was wounded shortly before Thanksgiving, she said, leaving him with second-degree burns and scars beneath his nose and on his wrist.
He left for Iraq early last month.
His wife last heard from him Wednesday. He called because he had heard that she was feeling nervous about his safety.
He was supposed to call again Friday.
"All the while I was supposed to hear from him Friday and I didn't hear from him, and that's when it all happened," Ruby Shepherd said.
"He was a hero. He was doing his job, and he died doing what he loved -- helping America."
Researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report.