Binh N. Le had not been back to the land of his birth since he came to the United States with an aunt and uncle at age 4, leaving his parents behind.
So, after he graduated from Edison High School in Fairfax County in 2002 and before he joined the Marine Corps later that year, Le made a joyous pilgrimage to Vietnam to visit his mother and father. Recently, he told one of his aunts in the United States that when he returned from his second tour in Iraq in April, they would make the trip together.
But Le, a 20-year-old corporal from Alexandria, was killed last week in Iraq. The Pentagon said he died of injuries suffered in enemy action in Anbar province; the Associated Press said a car bomb killed him and a fellow Marine, Cpl. Matthew A. Wyatt, 21, of Millstadt, Ill., as they patrolled near the Jordanian border.
Now, instead of awaiting his return visit, Le's parents will be making their way to this country to attend his funeral when it is scheduled at Arlington National Cemetery.
Le was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. He was trained as a field artillery cannoneer and belonged to the unit's Sierra battery. He was proud to be a Marine, said an uncle, Luong La of Dale City.
La said the military was a natural choice for his nephew, a member of his high school's Junior ROTC program. His father had served in the Vietnamese army, and Le had "that kind of blood."
Le was proud, too, of his adopted country, his uncle said. He became a U.S. citizen while serving his first tour in Iraq, and he hoped to sponsor his parents to join him in this country. "That was his dream," La said.
In the meantime, he wanted to make a career of the Marine Corps. When Le told relatives that he would be returning to Iraq, La remembers saying he was a "little bit scared for him." But Le responded that he had a duty.
"He said if he don't do it, no one do it. He do whatever his job," La said. "That was his attitude in being a Marine."
Le was small and slender, quick and energetic, recalled Lynn Hall, his pastor at Lorton's Gunston Bible Church. Le and Hall's son Joe had been close friends since Le joined the church as a boy, Hall said. He said Le was the kind of kid who never stopped moving and always liked to be at the center of things, the kind who would declare that he planned to throw a birthday party -- for himself.
When he visited on leave, Le sometimes stayed at Hall's house. The pastor fondly recalled waking up in the morning to find the young man asleep on the sofa after staying out until 3 a.m. to cram in visits with friends.
Hall said Le told him he joined the Marine Corps because it was the "best fighting force in the world."
"I would sometimes use the term 'soldier' with him, and he hated to be called 'soldier' because he was a Marine, not a soldier," Hall said.
Le told church members that he helped secure a bridge south of Baghdad during the initial invasion of the country in 2003 and was greeted kindly by the people there. "He said the Iraqi people were so glad they were there it just about put him in tears," Hall recalled.
Le was known as a talented musician. He played drums, and in junior high school he formed a band with a cousin and Joe Hall. After the band broke up, he picked up keyboards and played both instruments for the church, Lynn Hall said.
"He was an excellent drummer, but his music teachers would always get mad at him 'cause he'd play them loud," he said. "He'd really bang them."
Le called home often to speak with his American family -- Thanh Le and Hau Luu, the aunt and uncle who brought him to this country and legally adopted him, and La and his wife, Tuc-cuc Thi Tran, with whom he often stayed while on leave.
In one recent conversation, he told La that he was tiring of military food and wanted to try to make Vietnamese-style meatballs. La promised to ship the seasonings overseas soon.
The last time they spoke, just two weeks ago, La said he advised his nephew to "keep his head down."
"Yeah," the young man responded. "We'll do that."